November 30, 2014 3:00 pm -

[su_right_ad]Evolutionary biologist Sean B. Carroll explains:

Fifty years ago, we were just beginning to learn some important lessons from natural disasters, epidemics, and manmade tragedies. As we gather this holiday season to take stock of all that we have to be grateful for, at the top of our list should be those who have had the foresight and resolve to make our world safer…

But now, to that list of calamities to learn from, we need to add “mass extinctions.”

Mass extinctions?

[su_thin_right_skyscraper_ad]Yes, because nature’s warning lights are flashing. In the past forty years, Earth has lost half of its wild animal populations. Africa’s lions are one telling example. Thought the King of the Beasts was protected?

Think again. Fifty years ago, about 400,000 lions roamed Africa. Today, there are only about 30,000 remaining, as they have disappeared from twenty-six countries.

The fraction of species now at risk of extinction in the near future includes over one quarter of all species being monitored including mammals, reptiles, birds, and fish.

The potential losses of species are on a scale that is rivaled by only a few events in the last 500 million years of Earth’s history. Five times during that span, the majority of species on the planet vanished in a short interval of time. Scientists have now identified the triggers of two of those events: an asteroid that struck Earth 66 million years ago and wiped out dinosaurs and much more, and massive eruptions of volcanoes underneath Siberia that decimated the world 252 million years ago.

While the triggers for these two calamities were different, detailed study of what unfolded in the past reveals a common mode of destruction that is relevant to understanding our predicament today: in each case, mass extinction resulted from large and rapid environmental change on a global scale. Indeed, the main weapons of mass destruction unleashed by the Siberian eruptions included enormous quantities of the very familiar climate-changing gas carbon dioxide. The great concern of scientists today is that the potential global temperature changes projected over the next century approach those that took place 252 million years ago.

But these concerns about climate-changing gases are hardly new. In February 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson told Congress: “This generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through . . . a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.”

There are now a lot of scientists with tense stomachs.

Let’s hope that fifty years from now, future generations might be thanking us for heeding the warnings.

About the author: Sean B. Carroll, Ph.D., is an evolutionary biologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and vice president for science education at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. He is an executive producer of a new film, Mass Extinction: Life at the Brink, which will premiere on Smithsonian Channel Nov. 30 at 8 PM ET/PT.


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D.B. Hirsch
D.B. Hirsch is a political activist, news junkie, and retired ad copy writer and spin doctor. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

23 responses to Why We May Be On The Brink Of Mass Extinction

  1. Obewon November 30th, 2014 at 3:18 pm

    Today’s zero polluting solar, wind, geothermal, tidal and hydrogen fusion energy from seawater are only derided in the 21st century by big oil polluted scientific illiterates.
    In February 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson told Congress: “This generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.”-NASA, NOAA & 97% of climatologists agree.

    • Tommy6860 November 30th, 2014 at 5:18 pm

      We definitely need to use the natural resources sans anything that produces CO2 as a waste. But nuclear fusion is a long way off at this point. This is a good short read on the future of this technology. Then of course, Wikipedia expands on this farther.

      • Obewon November 30th, 2014 at 6:17 pm

        1/3 of Earth eventually will be powered by fusion. That leaves 2/3 power generated from solar, wind, tidal and biomass:)

        The National Ignition Facility opened in 2009 and has already fused 500 trillion watts+ in single shots via two 1.9 Mega Joule lasers multiplied into 192 beams. NIF has already generated twice the power output, as was input: “This latest result is very important, since it marks the first time that any approach to fusion has generated a greater amount of energy than was initially absorbed by the fuel. In fact, in the most recent experiments of the past few weeks, the fusion energy output was more than double the input,” said NIF Program Director for Fusion Energy Systems Mike Dunne. “Of course, we still have some work to do to get to ignition.”

        Ignition — defined to be when a megajoule of fusion energy is released — is a threshold process and needs exquisite control of the initial conditions, he explained. “Fortunately, the astounding level of agreement between simulation and experiment in these latest results provides a robust platform for future studies for the very first time.” Peer-review Journal Nature link NIF Status Update – 2014 NIF Fusion power plant prototype progress keeps doubling, and may deliver by 2025.

      • Obewon November 30th, 2014 at 6:43 pm

        Lockheed Martin may complete their fusion power plant by 2017.

  2. Anomaly 100 November 30th, 2014 at 3:22 pm

    It’s over y’all.

    • mea_mark November 30th, 2014 at 3:34 pm

      And we can thank Big Oil for it.

  3. Kick Frenzy November 30th, 2014 at 3:41 pm

    On the positive side… at least we’ll run out of oi,l in the next 50 to 250 years.

    Ta da?

  4. Jones November 30th, 2014 at 4:07 pm

    Mass extinction is inevitable, we’ve past the tipping point. If we did everything right starting today it would only slow it down a bit. There wii be massive crop failure from extreme climate causing global famine and world war over scant resources. Maybe the next intelligent species that takes our place will do better…a few hundred million years from now.

    Maybe I’m being too pessimistic.

    • Carla Akins November 30th, 2014 at 4:09 pm

      Have you been watching The Newsroom? 😉

      • Jones November 30th, 2014 at 4:18 pm


    • fahvel November 30th, 2014 at 7:39 pm

      you use the word intelligent as if humans were intelligent – look at human history and point out the intelligence – especially an intelligence that can be agreed upon by other species and not just self proclaimed bull shit

      • Jones November 30th, 2014 at 8:41 pm

        “Intelligence has been defined in many different ways such as in terms of one’s capacity for logic, abstract thought, understanding, self-awareness, communication, learning, emotional knowledge, memory, planning, creativity and problem solving.”

        We are intelligent enough to see how stupid we’ve been. Also enough to map the human genome, conquer space, and connect the world with personal computers. We may be the most destructive species, but we are also the most intelligent.

        • fahvel December 1st, 2014 at 12:18 am

          hey jones, wiki is people adulating people – it’s all crap – a species that cleverly creates an environment and inventions that will eventually eradicate itself is not intelligent – clever maybe but in no way more intelligent than all the species that are being devastated by humans.. All the inventions and stuff (just stuff) you mentioned do not suggest intelligence since there are no other lofe forms willing to communicate with people – humans are alone in their ow delusional state – WIKI is just one more sign of a species and its elitism.

          • Jones December 1st, 2014 at 12:46 am

            Yes, all species are intellectually equal. Language, science, civilization, are just signs of speciest elitism. If we were Intelligent the animals would have told us so. /s

  5. fancypants November 30th, 2014 at 4:27 pm

    if new Orleans can still exist being well below sea level It only proves other ocean border states can do the same. I give it more then 50 yrs providing they start building levies soon

    • Mike November 30th, 2014 at 4:42 pm

      You think that’s the only issue?

      • fancypants November 30th, 2014 at 5:09 pm

        nobody can touch base on all issues since most if not all of this doesn’t explain who or what country is to to blame or should I say they refuse to blame some countries ?

        • Margie Bateman Osgood December 1st, 2014 at 10:00 am

          How about just blaming mankind? We have all contributed to this mess

    • fahvel November 30th, 2014 at 7:37 pm

      that kind of narrow mindedness will only contribute to the end – think more – then speak.

      • fancypants December 1st, 2014 at 11:46 pm

        just my 2 yen on the subject. You cant please everyone

  6. FrankenPC . November 30th, 2014 at 5:10 pm

    Humans were doomed to be the first parasite in history that caused a planetary mass extinction event WHILE pondering the philosophical meaning of its actions.

    I feel like that’s the eulogy Douglas Adams would write for a tiny anecdote in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

  7. neworleans878 November 30th, 2014 at 5:11 pm

    Crisis? What Crisis?

  8. Warman1138 November 30th, 2014 at 5:50 pm

    When you think about it, the primary mover of most of this was to make money, an abstract created to facilitate commerce, what a weird way to justify destruction and death on a global scale. Global warming! There’s no such thing, after all, less hydrocarbon consumption means less profit and less profit is the very worst of things.