The Broken Cycles: An Overview of Peak Phosphorus and Peak Oil Crisis.

The Broken Cycles: An Overview of Peak Phosphorus and Peak Oil Crisis.

It is often hard to imagine that humans have only been on Earth for 200,000 years compared to the 4.5 billion years Earth’s been in existence (Anonymous2007, 1). Earth has gone through changes from methane, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen based atmosphere to one filled with oxygen (KASTING 1993, 920-926). Through the 4.5 billion years, Earth has been able to sustain itself through interactions with the various organisms to generate resource cycles. Even when humans first arrived, Earth accommodated humans like any other organism; however, within the last hundred years, human interaction has changed Earth’s cycles.

One resource facing broken cycle is oil. The consumption of fossil fuel by human, especially in the last few decades, increased to the point that oil is THE sensitive subjects globally (Kerr 1998, 1128-1131). Another example of resource facing the same broken cycle is phosphorus. Some scientists have calculated that peak phosphorus is closer than predicted and that the world phosphorus production could decline soon (Clabby 2010, 291-292). In this article, the topic of peak phosphorus will be studied. The phosphorus cycle will be examined to determine where within the cycle human consumptions are leading toward peak. A comparison of peak phosphorus and peak oil will also be discussed to evaluate the similarities and differences between the two. Furthermore, effects of peak phosphorus on Earth as well as methods of repairing the broken cycle will also be included.

Phosphorus Cycle

Phosphorus is an element that is commonly found under the nitrogen group is a multivalent nonmetal chemical (Abelson 1999). Phosphorus can exist in various states, but are often found to be oxidized as either white phosphorus or red phosphorus inorganic solid rocks (Fuller 1951). Given the various state of phosphorus, the phosphorus cycle can pass through the Earth’s crust, surface water, and bio organisms (Filippelli 2008). Figure 1.1 is a system diagram of the phosphorus cycle. Phosphorus cycle can be broken down into two cycles with liquid inorganic phosphate in soil as a linking point. In the first cycle, these inorganic phosphates in soil precipitates to form solid inorganic phosphates and with gravity finds its way into the Earth’s crust. Through plate tectonic and the friction among the plates, these solid inorganic phosphates make their way to the surface. And finally natural occurrences such as rain or snow return them to liquid state to complete the first cycle. The second cycle also starts with liquid inorganic phosphate in soil. The liquid inorganic phosphate is consumed by bio organisms and enters the food web as organic material. Phosphorus exits the food web via waste or detritus and with the help of bacterial process is reconverted into inorganic.

The New Phosphorus Cycle:

Figure 1.1 shows a phosphorus cycle without any human manipulation. There are several points in the cycle in which human activities caused great impacts to the cycle (Trasarcepeda and others 1993). The particular interest human has on phosphate comes from that it is considered to be the limiting nutrient for all organisms. Phosphorus, although only in small quantity, is necessary for the survival of organisms, yet with its long life cycle is hard to obtain (Takeda and others 2004). Thus, as the dominant species on Earth, it is not hard to see human manipulate the phosphorus cycle to obtain the desired phosphorus.

The first and probably most prevalent source of human activity in the cycle is in the mining of solid phosphorus rocks (Trasarcepeda and others 1993). Phosphate comes in various forms in the solid state: Triphylite, Monazite, Phosphophyllite, etc. These minerals go through purification, chemical processes and are used in various industries. Figure 1.2 shows how this addition to the phosphorus cycle affects the overall capacity. The rapid mining of phosphate rich minerals is causing a choke point in the cycle. The natural cycle where the minerals are broken down into liquid are not happening fast enough to compensate the mining of the solids.

The second source of human activity in the cycle includes the use of rich phosphorus soil for agriculture (Childers and others 2011). In a normal phosphorus cycle, liquid inorganic phosphates in soil are absorbed by plants. Given the benefits of having phosphate in agriculture, humans have since the beginning of agrarian times sought after rich soils to farm. However, given the rapid population growth on Earth as well as the increase in consumption of food, these phosphorus rich soils are being over used resulting in trouble spot in the cycle. Figure 1.3 illustrates this point.

The third source of human activity in the phosphorus cycle is deep sea mining (Creamer 2012, 1). Earlier this year, Namibia initiated a 30 year long seafloor phosphate mining project. The process of seafloor mining are similar to that of land mining; the only difference is that demand of phosphate has added another loop into the phosphorus cycle as illustrated in figure 1.4.

When all these human activities are added up, figure 1.5, the simple phosphorus cycle becomes quite complicated. This complicated interaction of human and nature is causing a major concern. Given the relatively long cycle of phosphorus compounded with the ever increasing consumption of phosphorus by human, would phosphorus ever run out on Earth?

Peak Oil: The THING on Everyone’s Mind

It is hard to grasp on the reality that everything that is currently visible to the eye are either directly contributed with the use of fossil fuels or indirectly through the manufacturing and transporting,  of the goods. David Owen describes in the Green Metropolis, “The cost of fossil fuels is an important part of the cost of everything we buy and everything we do” (Owen). It is quite frightening how deep David Owen’s statement is, a look at today’s top new headlines can only further strengthen that view: the War on Iraq, the conflict at the Strait of Hormuz, the development of high efficient vehicles, the efforts of finding alternative fuel, and the regulations on resources in China are just some examples.

At one point, fossil fuel was considered to be cheapest source of energy (Fisher 2000). The concept of peak oil which was first used and described by Hubbert in 1956 became a center of attention (Hubbert 1956, 22-27). Because of Hubbert, extensive studies in the amount of fossil fuel as well as consumption and alternatives were done. Matthew Simmon in Twilight in the Dessert wrote about the negative impacts of having decline oil production (Simmons 2005). David Goodstein of California Institute of Technology also suggests the same impacts. Currently there are various predictions of when peak oil is. Some suggest that peak oil already occurred and that the current oil production is already on a decline (Hubbert 1949). Other suggest that peak oil can be reached as early as 2015 or as late as 2040

Peak Phosphorus: Is it really a Concern?

In 2007, the term “Peak Phosphorus” first appeared in a scholarly article written by Dery and Anderson (Déry and Anderson 2007, 1). Numbers are often used in the debate of whether peak phosphorus production has been reached or not. On one side there are individuals who propose that peak phosphorus not a concern. On the other side, individuals propose that the phosphorus on Earth is reaching a critical point and actions needs to happen in order to ensure lasting supplies of phosphorus.

The Global Phosphorus Research Initiative wrote on their website “it is estimated that the world’s readily available phosphorus supplies will be inadequate to meet agricultural demand within 30 to 40 years” (Cordell, Drangert, and White 2009). Timothy Beardsley wrote, phosphate-rich rocks are becoming harder to find. Beardsley mentioned that although currently not as imminent of a threat, the devastation of the lack of phosphorus is something that needs to be addressed immediately (Beardsley 2011). Dana Cordell also wrote that demand for phosphorus is growing, and the remaining phosphate rock is becoming increasingly scarce (Ashley, Cordell, and Mavinic 2011). Ashley K further strengthen the argument by stressing that phosphorus use patterns have resulted in a global environmental epidemic and lead to where the future availability of phosphorus is uncertain(Ashley, Cordell, and Mavinic 2011). These scientists above are warning of peak phosphorus through the various data gathered.

Leo Lewis, a correspondence for The Times London showed that phosphate rocks are experiencing a significant price increase, 700% to be exact (Lewis 2008, Sept 29, 2012). This data is significant in the debate as it fits the theories of Hubbert. The Hubbert curve describes the rate of production of a good over time (Hubbert 1949). The idea is that for all goods, there is a max production capacity that once reached will start a decline that mirrors that of the incline. Another evidence is in the amount of phosphate rock obtained. Since 1900, phosphate mining have be on an incline but the recent increase is less significant (Jasinski 2012, 118-119). Figure 1.6 shows the Hubbert curve of phosphorus production provided by The Global Phosphorus Research Initiative. The tension that is caused by the demand serves as another example. 90% of all phosphorus deposits that are currently being mined come from only a handful of countries (Cooper and others 2011). China, with a large phosphorus deposit, has placed regulations on resources and considered phosphorus as a scarce resource (Cooper and others 2011).

While evidences above point toward the existence of peak phosphorus, opponents of the theory often stress of too little information. Michael Mew, the director of Fertecon Research Centre wrote in 2011 that the superimposing of phosphate on Hubbert’s theory is flawed (Mew 2011, 1). He believes that the recent plateau of phosphorus production may be the new trend and that when taking other factors such as undiscovered phosphate sites and the advance of technology, that there is more than enough phosphorus (Mew 2011, 1). Mew believes peak phosphorus has become accepted in academic setting without a thorough analysis. Like Mew, Roland Scholz of Institute for Environmental Decisons also believes in no peak phosphorus. Scholz points out that the data gathered to make the argument for peak phosphorus are insignificant. That detail studies needs be performed prior to accepting peak phosphorus. Scholz points out that the total amount of phosphorus deposit that is widely used in arguing for peak phosphorus is in fact flawed and that there have been other studies that have suggested that the actual amount is double (Dumas, Frossard, and Scholz 2011).

Regardless of which side of the debate is ultimately correct, the one thing that both sides can agree on is that phosphorus is essential and that current rate of consumption of phosphorus will one day deplete the resource. The question is not peak phosphorus but how to regulate the use of phosphorus.

Similarities and Differences between Peak Phosphorus and Peak Oil

The similarities between peak phosphorus and peak oil lays mainly in how interconnected the two are. Both phosphorus and fossil fuels are essential. Earlier, it was mentioned that everything that is currently visible are a product or byproduct of oil. Well this can be said for phosphorus too. Dr. Norman Borlaug said, “This is a basic problem, to feed 6.6 billion people. Without fertilizer, forget it. The game is over.” In some ways, phosphorus and fossil fuel go together. Both are necessity and the thought of both peaking is troublesome.

Although peak phosphorus and peak oil are similar, there are detail aspects that separates the two. Phosphorus, like water, is essential for human to survive while humans can survive without fossil fuel. Peak phosphorus is scarier than peak oil in that there are no possible substitutes for the element (Beardsley 2011). Fossil Fuel can be substituted through electricity, solar, wind, water generated energy. Another difference is that Peak Oil is a topic that has been around for a while and has been extensively studied while peak phosphorus is relatively new and has limited data to support its claim (Kerschner and Hubacek 2009, 284-290). So what can we do about the foreshadowed peak phosphorus?

Peak Phosphorus: the Danger and the Remedy

The goal of solving peak phosphorus is quite simple. Of course this does not mean that the solutions are or that there is already a solution. Phosphorus exists as a cycle. A cycle is a continuous loop which means that the remedy will be to complete the loop. With this principle, scientists have proposed several remedies to prevent or delay peak phosphorus. Researches in recycling and redistributing the resources are methods of remedy. Current use of fertilizers in developed countries have reach an alarming rate and are causing problems as water contamination as the overuse of fertilizers seeps into ground water(Carpenter and others 1998, 559-568). There is also a large amount of phosphorus in human and animal feces. Current water treatment often rids the waste water of most “pollutants” which include phosphorus. Studies in extracting the phosphorus from waste water will allow for a shortcut in the phosphorus cycle.

Other remedies include, the search for new sources of phosphorus with several countries such as Namibia now extending their search into the sea. Several corporations like Mosaic have invested large sums into looking for deposits. Although the exact amount of phosphorus deposit that is still currently undiscovered is unknown, the hope is that as technology advances, the search will bear fruit.

Regardless of what kind of environmental questions or scare human deals with, one of the best remedy is education and regulation (Fantazzini, Hook, and Angelantoni 2011, 7865-7873). By seeing the whole picture, individuals can make correct decisions. Government and private sectors needs to educate the individuals on the threat. Furthermore, incentives, positive or negative, can be imposed. Figure 1.7.


Peak phosphorus and peak oil are not just some theory. They are the truth. Although there is no agreement on when; the threat is very real. Phosphorus and fossil fuel are both necessary in maintaining the current human standards of living. It is important for individuals to understand and to explore alternatives whether it is through new technology, better regulation and or increase knowledge. Peak phosphorus is scary, but the scary part is that no one will know until it passes and by that time would humans be ready?


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About t5huang

Masters in Environmental Science at UPenn Candidate
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