Oh no! Not that mass extinction thing again!

Yes, again…

Admittedly, I was behind the curve realizing that we may be in the throes of the sixth mass extinction in Earth’s history. It wasn’t until 2014, after reading Elizabeth Kolbert’s book, “The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History,” [1] that I posted my first article referencing it, “Humans are a minor perturbation in the life of the earth.” [2] I suggested in that article that humans have a difficult time understanding, let alone reacting to, events that occur in terms of geological time.

The second article in 2014 was “The Holocene extinction event Is our species’ destiny to be known as “The Burners?” [3]and reinforced the thought that our pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere was contributing to an acceleration of the extinction of species.

Observations mount, but who is noticing?

My thoughts haven’t changed on the topic since 2014, so there’s no need to revisit those concepts, but since writing the  articles, it seems that more observations emerge daily that are consistent with the hypotheses that we are, indeed, living in an era that may one day be viewed as a catastrophic period in human history.

And humans being what we are are so consumed by the daily sensational news that we miss the bigger picture. As I had advised in my previous articles – we should look around and think not in hours or minutes, but in centuries and millennia. If you can succeed in doing that you’ll realize you have a front-row seat to watching a mass extinction – just like the dinosaurs. Things in their extinction happened slowly too, I doubt any individual dinosaur noticed much either. And then one day, they were gone.

Are frogs the new canaries?

Kolbert discussed the disappearance of golden frogs in Panama in her book [4] and in an article in the New Yorker in 2009. [5] Scientists suspected something was going with the dying of frogs and toads on in the 1980s. [6]

More recent observations have confirmed the extinction of amphibians is occurring at an alarming rate. A 2019 article in Current Biology [7] estimated that more than 1,000 species of amphibians are at risk of extinction. While there remains controversy regarding the relative impact of climate change on the fungus that is killing the frogs, [8] there is a consensus that frogs and toads everywhere are being wiped out. At least miners knew to exit the mine when the canary died.

It’s not just Kermit’s friends that are disappearing, it’s also their dinners. [9] In 2013, the Krefeld Entomological Society reported that insect biomass had decreased 80% in three decades. [10] This quote from a 2017 article in Science Mag [11] gets the point across:

Entomologists call it the windshield phenomenon. “If you talk to people, they have a gut feeling. They remember how insects used to smash on your windscreen,” says Wolfgang Wägele, director of the Leibniz Institute for Animal Biodiversity in Bonn, Germany. Today, drivers spend less time scraping and scrubbing. “I’m a very data-driven person,” says Scott Black, executive director of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation in Portland, Oregon. “But it is a visceral reaction when you realize you don’t see that mess anymore.”

And then there are the plants. A 2019 study in Nature Ecology and Evolution [12] reported that three plant species have become extinct every year since 1900. That rate is 500 times the expected extinction rate.

Observations of extinctions are all around us. A 2019 UN report calculated that more than one million species are at risk of extinction. [13]

There are many other signs of impending disaster – rising global temperatures, [14] fires burning throughout the world [15], extreme algae blooms [16], retreating glaciers [17], and Iceland losing its ice [18].

Thinking beyond the contemporary

Take a moment and try the mental exercise of seeing what’s around you through the lens of geological time. You’re living in a very special moment. A moment that future inhabitants of the earth will look back on and marvel at how terrifying the extinction must have been to those alive today. Little will they know that very few realized what was going on. After all, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and cable TV are much more captivating to humans than a slow-moving extinction.

Climate change and Africa focus of Des Forges symposium

[1] The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History https://www.amazon.com/Sixth-Extinction-Unnatural-History/dp/0805092994

[2] Humans are a minor perturbation in the life of the earth https://confrontingmediocrity.net/2014/02/09/humans-are-a-minor-perturbation-in-the-life-of-the-earth/

[3] The Holocene extinction event Is our species’ destiny to be known as “The Burners? https://confrontingmediocrity.net/2014/04/13/the-holocene-extinction-event-is-our-species-destiny-to-be-known-as-the-burners/

[4] Book excerpt http://elizabethkolbert.com/excerpt.html

[5] The Sixth Extinction? There have been five great die-offs in history. This time, the cataclysm is us. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2009/05/25/the-sixth-extinction

[6] Frogs, Toads Vanishing Across Much of World https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1989/12/13/frogs-toads-vanishing-across-much-of-world/3492f892-cf5b-4bf0-9446-b3fb8059345d/

[7] Phylogenetic and Trait-Based Prediction of Extinction Risk for Data-Deficient Amphibians https://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(19)30403-8

[8] Is the Frog-Killing Chytrid Fungus Fueled by Climate Fluctuations?  https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/frog-killing-chytrid-fungus-climate-fluctuations/

[9] Insects Are Dying Off at an Alarming Rate https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/study-shows-global-insect-populations-have-crashed-last-decade-180971474/

[10] The German Amateurs Who Discovered ‘Insect Armageddon’ https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/04/world/europe/krefeld-germany-insect-armageddon.html

[11] Where have all the insects gone? https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/05/where-have-all-insects-gone

[12] Global dataset shows geography and life form predict modern plant extinction and rediscovery https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-019-0906-2.epdf

[13] Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services  https://www.ipbes.net/global-assessment-report-biodiversity-ecosystem-services

[14] Nasa Earth Observatory: World of Change https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/world-of-change/DecadalTemp

[15] Global Forrest Watch Fires Map https://fires.globalforestwatch.org/map/

[16] Algae blooms in Florida are a manifestation of a much larger problem https://confrontingmediocrity.net/2018/08/26/algae-blooms-in-florida-are-a-manifestation-of-a-much-larger-problem/

[17] Retreat of Glaciers in Glacier National Park https://www.usgs.gov/centers/norock/science/retreat-glaciers-glacier-national-park

[18] Lost glacier to be honored with memorial monument http://news.rice.edu/2019/07/18/lost-glacier-to-be-honored-with-memorial-monument/


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