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Earth's ecosystems nearing catastrophic 'tipping point,' warn scientists (+video)

Our planet is heading toward a sudden breakdown, a group of international scientists warn, unless humans adopt more sustainable practices. 

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"Every change we look at that we have accomplished in the past couple of centuries is actually more than what preceded one of these major state changes in the past," Barnosky said.

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Backing away from the ledge

The results are difficult to predict, because tipping points, by their definition, take the planet into uncharted territory. Based on past transitions, Barnosky and his colleagues predict a major loss of species (during the end of the last glacial period, half of the large-bodied mammal species in the world disappeared), as well as changes in the makeup of species in various communities on the local level. Meanwhile, humans may well be knotting our own noose as we burn through Earth's resources.

"These ecological systems actually give us our life support, our crops, our fisheries, clean water," Barnosky said. As resources shift from one nation to another, political instability can easily follow.

Pulling back from the ledge will require international cooperation, Barnosky said. Under business-as-usual conditions, humankind will be using 50 percent of the land surface on the planet by 2025. It seems unavoidable that the human population will reach 9 billion by 2050, so we'll have to become more efficient to sustain ourselves, he said. That means more efficient energy use and energy production, a greater focus on renewable resources, and a need to save species and habitat today for future generations.

"My bottom line is that I want the world in 50 to 100 years to be at least as good as it is now for my children and their children, and I think most people would say the same," Barnosky said. "We're at a crossroads where if we choose to do nothing we really do face these tipping points and a less-good future for our immediate descendents."

Follow Stephanie Pappas on Twitter @sipappas or LiveScience @livescience. We're also on Facebook Google+

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