All the Biomass of Earth, in One Graphic
All the Biomass of Earth, in One Graphic
Our planet supports approximately 8.7 million species, of which over a quarter live in water.
But humans can have a hard time comprehending numbers this big, so it can be difficult to really appreciate the breadth of this incredible diversity of life on Earth.
In order to fully grasp this scale, we draw from research by Bar-On et al. to break down the total composition of the living world, in terms of its biomass, and where we fit into this picture.
A “carbon-based life form” might sound like something out of science fiction, but that’s what we and all other living things are.
Carbon is used in complex molecules and compounds—making it an essential part of our biology. That’s why biomass, or the mass of organisms, is typically measured in terms of carbon makeup.
In our visualization, one cube represents 1 million metric tons of carbon, and every thousand of these cubes is equal to 1 Gigaton (Gt C).
Here’s how the numbers stack up in terms of biomass of life on Earth:
|Taxon||Mass (Gt C)||% of total|
Plants make up the overwhelming majority of biomass on Earth. There are 320,000 species of plants, and their vital photosynthetic processes keep entire ecosystems from falling apart.
Fungi is the third most abundant type of life—and although 148,000 species of fungi have been identified by scientists, it’s estimated there may be millions more.
Animals: A Drop in the Biomass Ocean
Although animals make up only 0.47% of all biomass, there are many sub-categories within them that are worth exploring further.
|Taxon||Mass (Gt C)||% of Animal Biomass|
Arthropods are the largest group of invertebrates, and include up to 10 million species across insects, arachnids, and crustaceans.
The category of chordates includes wild mammals, wild birds, livestock, humans, and fish. Across 65,000 living species in total, nearly half are bony fish like piranhas, salmon, or seahorses.
Surprisingly, humans contribute a relatively small mass compared to the rest of the Animal Kingdom. People make up only 0.01% of all the biomass on the planet.
Annelids, Mollusks, Cnidarians, and Nematodes
Annelids are segmented worms like earthworms or leeches, with over 22,000 living species on this planet. After arthropods, mollusks are the second-largest group of invertebrates with over 85,000 living species. Of these, 80% are snails and slugs.
Cnidarians are a taxon of aquatic invertebrates covering 11,000 species across various marine environments. These include jellyfish, sea anemone, and even corals.
Nematodes are commonly referred to as roundworms. These sturdy critters have successfully adapted to virtually every kind of ecosystem, from polar regions to oceanic trenches. They’ve even survived traveling into space and back.
The Microscopic Rest
Beyond these animals, plants, and fungi, there are an estimated trillion species of microbes invisible to the naked eye—and we’ve probably only discovered 0.001% of them so far.
Bacteria were one of the first life forms to appear on Earth, and classified as prokaryotes (nucleus-less). Today, they’re the second-largest composition of biomass behind plants. Perhaps this is because these organisms can be found living literally everywhere—from your gut to deep in the Earth’s crust.
Researchers at the University of Georgia estimate that there are 5 nonillion bacteria on the planet—that’s a five with 30 zeros after it.
Protists and Archaea
Protists are mostly unicellular, but are more complex than bacteria as they contain a nucleus. They’re also essential components of the food chain.
Archaea are single-celled microorganisms that are similar to bacteria but differ in compositions. They thrive in extreme environments too, from high temperatures above 100°C (212°F) in geysers to extremely saline, acidic, or alkaline conditions.
Viruses are the most fascinating category of biomass. They have been described as “organisms at the edge of life,” as they are not technically living things. They’re much smaller than bacteria—however, as the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, their microscopic effects cannot be understated.
The Earth’s Biomass, Under Threat
Human activities are having an ongoing impact on Earth’s biomass.
For example, we’ve lost significant forest cover in the past decades, to make room for agricultural land use and livestock production. One result of this is that biodiversity in virtually every region is on the decline.
Will we be able to reverse this trajectory and preserve the diversity of all the biomass on Earth, before it’s too late?
Editor’s note: This visualization was inspired by the work of Javier Zarracina for Vox from a few years ago. Our aim with the above piece was to recognize that while great communication needs no reinvention, it can be enhanced and reimagined to increase editorial impact and help spread knowledge to an even greater share of the population.
Mapped: What Did the World Look Like in the Last Ice Age?
A map of the Earth 20,000 years ago, at the peak of the last ice age, when colder temperatures transformed the planet we know so well.
What Did the World Look Like in the Last Ice Age?
What did the world look like during the last ice age? Was it all endless glaciers and frozen ice? The answer is a partial yes—with some interesting caveats.
The Last Glacial Maximum (LGM), colloquially called the last ice age, was a period in Earth’s history that occurred roughly 26,000 to 19,000 years ago.
This map by cartographer Perrin Remonté offers a snapshot of the Earth from that time, using data of past sea levels and glaciers from research published in 2009, 2014, and 2021, alongside modern-day topographical data.
Let’s dive into the differences between the two Earths below.
The Last Ice Age: Low Seas, Exposed Landmasses
During an ice age, sea levels fall as ocean water that evaporates is stored on land on a large scale (ice sheets, ice caps, glaciers) instead of returning to the ocean.
|Earth's Ice Cover||20,000 Years Ago||Today|
At the time of the LGM, the climate was cold and dry with temperatures that were 6 °C (11 °F) lower on average. Water levels in the ocean were more than 400 feet below what they are now, exposing large areas of the continental shelf.
In the map above, these areas are represented as the gray, dry land most noticeable in a few big patches in Southeast Asia and between Russia and Alaska. Here are a few examples of regions of dry land from 20,000 years ago that are now under water:
- A “lost continent” called Sundaland, a southeastern extension of Asia which forms the island regions of Indonesia today. Some scholars see a connection with this location and the mythical site of Atlantis, though there are many other theories.
- The Bering land bridge, now a strait, connecting Asia and North America. It is central to the theory explaining how ancient humans crossed between the two continents.
- Another land bridge connected the island of Great Britain with the rest of continental Europe. The island of Ireland is in turn connected to Great Britain by a giant ice sheet.
- In Japan, the low water level made the Sea of Japan a lake, and a land bridge connected the region to the Asian mainland. The Yellow Sea—famous as a modern-day fishing location—was completely dry.
The cold temperatures also caused the polar parts of continents to be covered by massive ice sheets, with glaciers forming in mountainous areas.
Flora and Fauna in the Last Ice Age
The dry climate during the last ice age brought about the expansion of deserts and the disappearance of rivers, but some areas saw increased precipitation from falling temperatures.
Most of Canada and Northern Europe was covered with large ice sheets. The U.S. was a mix of ice sheets, alpine deserts, snow forests, semi-arid scrubland and temperate grasslands. Areas that are deserts today—like the Mojave—were filled with lakes. The Great Salt Lake in Utah is a remnant from this time.
Africa had a mix of grasslands in its southern half and deserts in the north—the Sahara Desert existed then as well—and Asia was a mix of tropical deserts in the west, alpine deserts in China, and grasslands in the Indian subcontinent.
Several large animals like the woolly mammoth, the mastodon, the giant beaver, and the saber-toothed tiger roamed the world in extremely harsh conditions, but sadly all are extinct today.
However, not all megafauna from the LGM disappeared forever; many species are still alive, including the Bactrian camel, the tapir, the musk ox, and the white rhinoceros—though the latter is now an endangered species.
Will There Be Another Ice Age?
In a technical sense, we’re still in an “ice age” called the Quaternary Glaciation, which began about 2.6 million years ago. That’s because a permanent ice sheet has existed for the entire time, the Antarctic, which makes geologists call this entire period an ice age.
We are currently in a relatively warmer part of that ice age, described as an interglacial period, which began 11,700 years ago. This geological epoch is known as the Holocene.
Over billions of years, the Earth has experienced numerous glacial and interglacial periods and has had five major ice ages:
|Major Ice Ages||Name||Time Period (Years Ago)|
|1||Huronian Glaciation||2.4 billion - 2.1 billion|
|2||Cryogenian Glaciation||720 million - 635 million|
|3||Andean-Saharan Glaciation||450 million - 420 million|
|4||Late Paleozoic ice age||335 million - 260 million|
|5||Quaternary Glaciation||2.6 million - present|
It is predicted that temperatures will fall again in a few thousand years, leading to expansion of ice sheets. However there are a dizzying array of factors that are still not understood well enough to say comprehensively what causes (or ends) ice ages.
A popular explanation says the degree of the Earth’s axial tilt, its wobble, and its orbital shape, are the main factors heralding the start and end of this phenomenon.
The variations in all three lead to a change in how much prolonged sunlight parts of the world receive, which in turn can cause the creation or melting of ice sheets. But these take thousands of years to coincide and cause a significant change in climate.
Furthermore, current industrial activities have warmed the climate considerably and may in fact delay the next ice age by 50,000-100,000 years.
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