The water planetary boundary: interrogation and revision

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Tom Gleeson, Lan Wang Erlandsson, Sam Zipper , Miina Porkka, Fernando Jaramillo, Dieter Gerten, Ingo Fetzer, Sarah Elisabeth Cornell, Luigi Piemontese, Line Gordon


The planetary boundaries framework has proven useful for many global sustainability contexts, but is challenging to apply to freshwater, which is spatially heterogeneous, part of complex socio-ecological systems and often dominated by local dynamics. To date, the planetary boundary for water has been simplistically defined by as the global rate of blue water consumption, functioning as a proxy for water partitioning in the global hydrological cycle, and considering impacts on rivers’ environmental flow requirements. We suggest the current planetary boundary should be replaced since it does not adequately represent the influence of water in critical Earth System functions such as regional climate and biodiversity. We review the core functions of water in the Earth System and set out a roadmap towards a more robust, holistic, and locally applicable water planetary boundary. We propose defining the boundary using four core functions of water (hydroclimatic regulation, hydroecological regulation, storage, and transport) in conjunction with five water stores (surface water, atmospheric water, soil moisture, groundwater and frozen water). Through the functions, the stores are inextricably interconnected with the atmosphere, land, ocean and biosphere. The roadmap outlined here suggests how to move towards setting six new water planetary sub-boundaries. This ambitious scientific and policy Grand Challenge that could substantially improve our understanding and management of water cycle modifications in the Earth System and provide a complementary approach to existing water management tools.



Earth Sciences, Environmental Sciences, Hydrology, Physical Sciences and Mathematics


Water, planetary boundary, water cycle


Published: 2019-10-03 20:06

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