Quantcast

Scientist Warns Breaching a 'Carbon Threshold' Could Lead to Mass Extinction Event

Oceans
A study by an MIT researcher warns that humans are pumping carbon into the world's oceans at a rate that could trigger a mass extinction event. Pexels

By Julia Conley

The continuous accumulation of carbon dioxide in the planet's oceans — which shows no sign of stopping due to humanity's relentless consumption of fossil fuels — is likely to trigger a chemical reaction in Earth's carbon cycle similar to those which happened just before mass extinction events, according to a new study.


MIT geophysics Prof. Daniel Rothman released new data on Monday showing that carbon levels today could be fast approaching a tipping point threshold that could trigger extreme ocean acidification similar to the kind that contributed to the Permian–Triassic mass extinction that occurred about 250 million years ago.

Rothman's new research comes two years after he predicted that a mass extinction event could take place at the end of this century. Since 2017, he has been working to understand how life on Earth might be wiped out due to increased carbon in the oceans.

Rothman created a model in which he simulated adding carbon dioxide to oceans, finding that when the gas was added to an already-stable marine environment, only temporary acidification occurred.

When he continuously pumped carbon into the oceans, however, as humans have been doing at greater and greater levels since the late 18th century, the ocean model eventually reached a threshold which triggered what MIT called "a cascade of chemical feedbacks," or "excitation," causing extreme acidification and worsening the warming effects of the originally-added carbon.

Over the past 540 million years, these chemical feedbacks have occurred at various times, Rothman noted.

But the most significant occurrences took place around the time of four out of the five mass extinction events — and today's oceans are absorbing carbon far more quickly than they did before the Permian–Triassic extinction, in which 90 percent of life on Earth died out.

The planet may now be "at the precipice of excitation," Rothman told MIT News.

On social media, one critic called the study's implications about life on Earth "completely terrifying."

The study, which was completed with support from NASA and the National Science Foundation, also notes that even though humans have only been pumping carbon into the oceans for hundreds of years rather than the thousands of years it took for volcanic eruptions and other events to bring about other extinctions, the result will likely be the same.

"Once we're over the threshold, how we got there may not matter," Rothman told MIT News. "Once you get over it, you're dealing with how the Earth works, and it goes on its own ride."

Other scientists said the study, which will be published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, represents a clear call for immediate action to drastically reduce the amount of carbon that is being pumped into the world's oceans. Climate action groups and grassroots movements have long called on governments to impose a moratorium on fossil fuel drilling, which pumps about a billion metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere every year.

"We already know that our CO2-emitting actions will have consequences for many millennia," said Timothy Lenton, a professor of climate change and earth systems science at the University of Exeter. "This study suggests those consequences could be much more dramatic than previously expected."

"If we push the Earth system too far," Lenton added, "then it takes over and determines its own response — past that point there will be little we can do about it."

Reposted with permission from our media associate Common Dreams.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Record flood water levels in Venice hit again on Sunday making this the worst week of flooding in the city in over 50 years.

Read More Show Less

By Brian Barth

Late fall, after the last crops have been harvested, is a time to rest and reflect on the successes and challenges of the gardening year. But for those whose need to putter around in the garden doesn't end when cold weather comes, there's surely a few lingering chores. Get them done now and you'll be ahead of the game in spring.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
(L) Selma Three Stone Engagement Ring. (R) The Greener Diamond Farm Project. MiaDonna

By Bailey Hopp

If you had to choose a diamond for your engagement ring from below or above the ground, which would you pick … and why would you pick it? This is the main question consumers are facing when picking out their diamond engagement ring today. With a dramatic increase in demand for conflict-free lab-grown diamonds, the diamond industry is shifting right before our eyes.

Read More Show Less
(L) 3D graphical representation of a spherical-shaped, measles virus particle that is studded with glycoprotein tubercles.
(R) The measles virus pictured under a microscope. PHIL / CDC

The Pacific Island nation of Samoa declared a state of emergency this week, closed all of its schools and limited the number of public gatherings allowed after a measles outbreak has swept across the country of just 200,000 people, according to Reuters.

Read More Show Less
Austin Nuñez is Chairman of the Tohono O'odham Nation, which joined with the Hopi and Pascua Yaqui Tribes to fight a proposed open-pit copper mine on sacred sites in Arizona. Mamta Popat

By Alison Cagle

Rising above the Arizona desert, the Santa Rita Mountains cradle 10,000 years of Indigenous history. The Tohono O'odham Nation, Pascua Yaqui Tribe, and Hopi Tribe, among numerous other tribes, have worshipped, foraged, hunted and laid their ancestors to rest in the mountains for generations.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
The Navajo Nation has suffered from limited freshwater resources as a result of climate, insufficient infrastructure, and contamination. They collaborated with NASA to develop the Drought Severity Evaluation Tool. NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Native Americans are disproportionately without access to clean water, according to a new report, "Closing the Water Access Gap in the United States: A National Action Plan," to be released this afternoon, which shows that more than two million Americans do not have access to access to running water, indoor plumbing or wastewater services.

Read More Show Less
Wild Exmoor ponies graze on a meadow in the Czech Republic. rapier / iStock / Getty Images Plus

By Nanticha Ocharoenchai

In the Czech Republic, horses have become the knights in shining armor. A study published in the Journal for Nature Conservation suggests that returning feral horses to grasslands in Podyjí National Park could help boost the numbers of several threatened butterfly species.

Read More Show Less

Despite huge strides in improving the lives of children since 1989, many of the world's poorest are being left behind, the United Nations children's fund UNICEF warned Monday.

Read More Show Less