The Holocene extinction event. Is our species’ destiny to be known as “The Burners?”
April 13, 2014
Take a moment to look around. Everything probably looks more or less normal. You have your daily routine and may have settled into a comfortable life rhythm. But what you may not realize is that what you are seeing is what it looks like to be living in a mass extinction.
Even though it’s all around you, it’s not your fault that you don’t see it because mass extinctions occur at a rate that doesn’t jive well with humans’ perception of time. We have difficulty thinking more than a few years ahead let alone a few thousand. That’s understandable. A May Fly lives only for a day, so to it the concept of more than one sunrise is unfathomable to it. But we’re not May Flies, or are we?
Mention the word extinction to someone and more likely than not the rapid disappearance of dinosaurs will come to mind. The extinction was rapid only in geological time. Recent evidence suggests it took as little as 30,000 years for the dinosaurs to disappear after an asteroid crashed into the Yucatan creating the Chicxulub crater. But they were not alone. Dinosaurs are probably the most recognizable members of the 50% of species that died during the Cretaceous–Paleogene (K–Pg) extinction event.
It could easily be argued that extinction is the inevitable fate of all species by recognizing that 99.9% of all species that have every existed on earth are now extinct. The average “life span” of a species varies by class with mammals averaging a million years but the rate at which species become extinct is not constant. There is a background extinction rate representing the expected number of extinctions in a given time. However, there are also periods in history where the extinction rate is greatly accelerated, resulting in periods of so called mass extinctions. Five mass extinctions have been identified and there is growing evidence we are currently living in the sixth classified as the Holocene extinction event.
Evidence suggests that instead of the 100 or so species expected to become extinct in a year there are tens of thousands. The discussion of the precise extinction rate is best left to scientists, but there is little doubt that the rate is far greater than the background rate. Why would that be? One contributing factor is surely the presence of humans.
Humans are a “weedy” species in that we reproduce rapidly, are adaptable to adverse environments and have no difficultly displacing native species. Our daily activities are enough to accelerate the demise of other species, but the one thing we have done for millennia is that we have burned stuff. It may have started as long as a million years ago, even before modern humans appeared. The fact that humans are prodigious burners of fossil fuel is anything but a new story. The real story is not air pollution or even climate change. The real story is that by their burning addiction, humans are contributing to, if not causing, the current mass extinction.
What a dubious distinction!
Besides burning things, humans like labeling things, including periods in the development of our species; periods such as the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, the Renaissance or the industrial revolution. But such a taxonomy is again limited by our perception of time. All of those periods are vanishing small in geologic time. I believe that a hundred thousand years from now our species will be known simply as “The Burners.” The only question is what species will use that term to characterize ours.
We recognize the problem and even know the solution but appear incapable of executing it.
Above. As roads penetrate into the Amazon Rainforest, fires and deforestation follow. This image from August 5, 2007, shows scores of fires burning along roads and at the edges of already cleared areas of the Amazon in southern Para and northern Mato Grosso states in Brazil. The image and fire detections (marked in red) were captured by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite. (http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/NaturalHazards/view.php?id=18860) Below. Not all burning takes place in the Amazon as we Americans are experts at burning fossil fuel through our irreplaceable SUVs.
 Original paper: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/339/6120/684 Also summarized here: http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/02/08/us-space-asteroid-dinosaurs-idUSBRE91618A20130208