Earth Tumbling Into Sixth Great Extinction As Species Disappear

When you think of great extinctions you might imagine asteroids or volcanoes that obliterated millions of species with violent, cataclysmic explosions. You can think of ancient sea creatures dying off in bubbling seas, dinosaurs falling with a thunderous thud on the jungle floor as the air around them turns toxic. But as we find ourselves caught in the clutches of what scientists consider the sixth great extinction event, it seems it was the arrival of humans that is the brutal culprit behind the genocide of countless plant and animal species across the globe.

Published on Thursday in the journal Science, the study takes a look at past and present rates of extinction and has found that the amount of living things on the planet going extinct were doing so 10 times faster than biologists had believed, and we were a good portion of the cause.

“We are on the verge of the sixth extinction,” said Stuart Pimm, leading author of Duke University’s new findings. “Whether we avoid it or not will depend on our actions.”

Pimm’s study, hailed as a landmark by experts outside the group, focused on the rate, rather than the number, of species that have disappeared from the Earth. Then he calculated out how many species die off out of one million species studied. In 1995 he estimated the extinction per one million species to be about one before humans got involved. Today those numbers are starkly different, ranging between 100 and 1000 species dying off out of a million.

While climate change is listed as one of the biggest contributors to the extinction of many different forms of life here on Earth, the study also shows that it was both encroachment on land as well as bloodthirsty, reckless hunting that caused the balance to tip towards the looming grave. Deforestation across the globe forced animals into tighter bindings with one another, forcing them to share dwindling resources. The introduction of aggressive, non-native species by human neglect or stupidity eradicate species that are not quick to adapt to the new, unknown predator. Elephants, seals, whales and more have been hunted to the brink of extinction. And now what little land is left for what remains of the diverse amount of life forms still clinging to the planet is being ravaged by global climate changes. As humans clutch for more and more land, these dying species have nowhere to go save into the land of extinction, where future history books will tell their story to future humans who will only be able to image what life was once like on the planet before we messed it up.

Co-author Clinton Jenkins used two species in particular to show as an example of how we directly affect the lives of the creatures around us.

The buffy-tufted-ear marmoset, Jenkins said, which lives in Brazil has had their habitat diminished so greatly because of Brazilian development that a rival marmoset group has taken over their territory. Now they are on the international danger list for extinction.

The oceanic white-tip shark, once one of the most prolific predators on the planet, have been hunted to the point that they are rarely seen today, he added. Dalhousie University marine biologist Boris Worm praised the work done by Pimm and his staff, adding, “If we don’t do anything, this will go the way of the dinosaurs.”

So what is a mass extinction like? After all, we are going to have to live through it, right?

Five times before our planet has faced this kind of calamity. Over 65 million years ago an asteroid or comet struck the earth and wiped out one in every four species. That was the one that wiped out our predecessor, the dinosaurs. However, looking at the diversity of reasons the extinction event we are now watching unfold has, we have to look all the way back to Permian-Triassic period some 252 million years ago when an extinction event known as “The Great Dying” occurred.

The runaway greenhouse gasses during the Permian Mass Extinction event caused nearly all life to die out on our planet. What took the planet millions of years to develop, science believes mankind has done in decades.

During this period, the generally agreed consensus is that a portion of Siberia experienced massive volcanism which set off coal and natural gas explosions that lasted nearly a million years known as the Siberian Traps. This caused the seas to warm, releasing enormous amounts of previously frozen methane gas, triggering a runaway greenhouse effect. The oceans currents stopped moving and oxygen in them was replaced with methane from microbes that thrived in the climate. Ninety-six percent of all marine species were wiped out. Seventy percent of land-walking vertebrates died out. It was the only known mass extinction of insects.

It took the planet roughly 10 million years to recover.

As we stand on the summit of the sixth great extinction event, some have hope that our turn at bat won’t be quite as devastating as the one 252 million years ago was. In fact, both Pimm and Jenkins say there is hope for life on Earth, but it’s up to us to fix what we have broken.

The use of cell phones, for example, have been a great help in finding and observing species in trouble, using apps like iNaturalist which links to a site where anyone can report information to those that can help. Once biologists know where to find the endangered species they can try to save the habitat, or use captive breeding to help ensure the survival of the species.

This technique has worked to save the golden lion tamarin, tiny primates thought to have gone extinct decades ago that were surprisingly found in pockets in Brazil. They were bred in captivity until biologists found a new forest for them to call home.

“Now there are more tamarins than there are places to put them,” Jenkins said.

President Obama seems to realize the impact we have made on our world, at least on the climate level, stating that on June 1st he plans to unveil a new initiative to curb greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide from existing power plants which have been seen as the biggest cause of greenhouse gases in America. It is speculated that Obama will bypass Congress on this measure, using the Clean Air Act to achieve greenhouse gas reductions. But according to the L.A. Times, this might erupt into big court battles, job losses and a resurgence of the “war on coal” many believe Obama is waging.

Not all in the energy business are blind to what is going on around them, however, and some coal-reliant states, power companies and regulators are preparing for a future that will place big limits on carbon emissions.

“Carbon policy is going to impact our business, and we have to be prepared for that,” said Robert C. Flexon, chief executive of Houston-based Dynegy. “It can be a threat or an opportunity. I’d rather make it an opportunity. You can sit and whine about it or find innovative ways to deal with it.”

While we look at the extinction of the creatures that once walked around and beside us and even we begin to feel the impact of the grievous wound we have given our planet on ourselves, scientists around the world are rushing to try and find ways to keep our world from going dead and stagnant, and they are coming up with some really great ideas. But behind every invention created and every idea that will grow to fruition to try and save life on our planet, one thing remains in the undertone. We must be responsible and we must start cleaning up our act. Then the future might not look so grim.