Earth Is Facing Most Severe Extinction Crisis in 65 Million Years
Earth's living community is now suffering the most severe biodiversity crisis in 65 million years, since a meteorite struck near modern Chicxulub, Mexico, injecting dust and sulfuric acid into the atmosphere and devastating 76 percent of all living species, including the dinosaurs.
Ecologists now ask whether or not Earth has entered another "major" extinction event, if extinctions are as important as general diversity collapse and which emergency actions we might take to reverse the disturbing trends.
Biodiversity decline is now higher than any time since the Chicxulub asteroid impact. Photo credit: Todd Warshaw / Greenpeace
In 1972, at the first UN environmental conference in Stockholm, Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich, linked the collapse of "organic diversity" to human population and industrial growth. In 1981, he published Extinction, explaining the causes and consequences of the biodiversity crisis and providing response priorities, starting with stabilizing human population and growth.
This summer, Ehrlich, Gerardo Ceballos (University of Mexico) and their colleagues, published "Accelerated modern human–induced species losses" in Science Advances. "The study shows," Ehrlich explains, "that we are now entering the sixth great mass extinction event." To demonstrate that Earth is experiencing a "mass extinction event" depends on showing that current extinction rates far exceed normal "background" extinction rates. To be absolutely certain, Ehrlich and Ceballos used the most conservative estimates of current extinctions, which they found to be about 10-to-100-times faster than the background rate.
There are three points worth keeping in mind:
- most extinction rate estimates from biologists range from 100 to 1000 times faster than background.
- this modern extinction rate is accelerating with each passing year.
- the general diversity collapse, even among species that don't go extinct, remains equally serious for humanity.
Biodiversity decline is now higher than any time since the Chicxulub asteroid impact. This time, however, humans are the asteroid.
I've used the term "ninth extinction" because the so-called "five major extinctions" occurred in the last 450 million years, but three earlier extinctions are significant and teach us something important about ecology and our potential role in emergency response.
Ancient toxic waste
Some 3.5 billion years ago, as Earth cooled enough to sustain complex molecules, anaerobic bacteria formed, single-cell marine organisms living without oxygen and extracting energy from sulphur. Within a few hundred million years, some bacteria and algae learned to collect solar energy through photosynthesis, releasing oxygen into the sea. About 2.5 billion years ago, free oxygen became life's first global ecological crisis.
Oxygen is toxic to anaerobic bacteria. Some species perished at only 0.5 percent oxygen, while others survived up to 8 percent oxygen. Oxygen eventually saturated the oceans, leaked into the atmosphere and oxidized methane, triggering a global cooling, the "Huronian glaciation," which led to more extinctions.
The evolutionary success of photosynthetic bacteria and algae triggered impacts similar to our own: crowded habitats, toxic waste, atmospheric disruption, temperature change and biodiversity collapse. Sound familiar? The die-off continued until certain organisms evolved to metabolize oxygen and the ecosystem regained a new dynamic equilibrium. We could help our situation by encouraging organisms that metabolize carbon dioxide, namely plants, but we are reducing forest cover, adding to the crisis.
In Newfoundland, Canada, in 1868, Scottish geologist Alexander Murray, found unusual disc-shaped organisms, Aspidella terranovica, in rock formations that pre-dated known animal forms, so most paleontologists doubted they represented a new fauna. However, in 1933, more specimens appeared in Namibia and in 1946, jellyfish fossils from this era appeared in the Ediacara Hills of Australia. These organisms, now known as the "Ediacaran" fauna, had no shells or skeletons, so they left only rare fossil impressions.
Oxygen metabolism allowed organisms to use nitrogen and to transform more energy, allowing complex morphologies, cell nuclei and symbiotic relationships within cells and among organisms. For another billion years, cells diversified, learned how to replicate by dividing (mitosis), then by sex (meiosis) and how to cooperate to form multi-cellular plants and animals. By 650 million years ago, Ediacaran life had diversified into unipolar, bipolar and radial organisms, including worms, sponges and jellies.
This abundance collapsed about 542 million years ago, possibly associated with meteorite impacts and an oxygen drop. More than 50 percent of the species probably perished. Typically, however, this extinction opened ecological niches for the explosion of life forms that followed.
Life tries again
Organisms that survived the Ediacaran collapse diversified during the so-called "Cambrian explosion." Life had already evolved for three billion years, before the appearance of crustaceans, arthropods (insects), Echinoderms (starfish, urchins), molluscs and our own ancestors, the chordates. Earth had been warming, but burgeoning marine plant life captured carbon-dioxide from the atmosphere, causing a cold period and around 488 million years ago, some 40 percent of the Cambrian species disappeared.
Typically, we measure extinction events by the numbers of species or families that disappear, but in this case, some phyla—fundamental life forms—perished. The extent of Cambrian phyla diversity remains controversial among biologists. In 1989, Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould published A Wonderful Life, in which he proposed numerous extinct Cambrian Phyla.
Some unusual Cambrian creatures may be earlier stages of existing forms, but some phyla likely perished at the end of the Cambrian. These early animals remain difficult to classify, so modern taxonomy incorporates "stem groups" of partially formed phyla. Cambrian oddities such as Odontogriphus and Nectocaris—may be stem groups related to molluscs. Or maybe not. Nectocaris possesses an arthropod-type head on a body with fins, similar to the chordates. Aysheaia, a lobopod with walking appendages, may represent a stem group related to later arthropods. The stunning Cambrian Pikaia—with a rudimentary backbone, no clear gills, unique muscle styles and tentacles—could be an extinct phyla. Vetulicolia—a worm-like animal with insect features, vertebrate, no eyes and no legs or feelers—probably represents an extinct phyla.
Losing phyla may be a unique quality of this Cambrian extinction event. After three billion years and three major extinctions, life's fundamental forms settled into the roughly 90 phyla that endure to this day: 35 animal forms (many rare; Placozoa, for example consists of a single known species), 12 plant forms, 14 fungi and 29 bacteria, plus the more obscure microorganisms archaea and protista. Most of the species we discuss and protect—birds, fish, reptiles, mammals—arise from a single phyla, the chordates and occasionally insects, molluscs, worms and corals.
Click to view full-sized. Photo credit: Greenpeace
After the Cambrian collapse, species diversity did not significantly increase for 300 million years, as life filled the marine habitats and moved onto land. Dozens of serious diversity collapses occurred during this time. The "Lau Event," 420 million years ago (mya), caused by climate change, erased about 30 percent of the species. During the Carboniferous period, 305 mya, a booming rainforest captured carbon and set off a global cooling that triggered widespread extinctions.
The approximately 90 essential life forms, however, endured through these disruptions and through the modern "5 major extinctions:"
Ordovician: 440 million years ago (mya), 85 percent species, 25 percent families perish, all marine, possibly caused by a solar gamma ray burst that depleted ozone protection.
Devonian: 370 mya, 83 percent species, 19 percent families perish, all marine, likely caused by volcanos, meteorite or both.
Permian, the big one: 250 mya, 95 percent marine, 70 percent terrestrial species and 54 percent of the families perished, the largest known diversity collapse in Earth history, likely caused by volcanic eruptions that increased carbon-dioxide and warming.
Triassic, 210 mya, 80 percent marine, 35 percent terrestrial species, 23 percent families gone, likely caused by volcanic eruptions releasing carbon and sulphur dioxide, triggering more warming.
Cretaceous: Demise of the dinosaurs, 65 mya, 76 percent species loss, caused by the meteorite that struck near Chicxulub, Mexico.
The three ancient extinctions and five modern extinctions, bring us to the current diversity collapse, primarily caused by human expansion on Earth.
The Human Asteroid
Massive biodiversity reductions, even among animals that do not go extinct, destabilize an ecosystem. "There are examples of species all over the world," Paul Ehrlich explains, "that are essentially the walking dead." Certain plant and animal populations may become so small that they may not recover, or may lose symbiotic function in the ecosystem. Depleted pollinators or prey species can create cascading extinctions. According to World Wildlife Fund and the Zoological Society of London, Earth has lost half its wild animals in 40 years, through habitat loss, hunting, poaching, climate change, toxins and invasive species.
At Seahorse Key, formerly the largest bird colony on the Gulf Coast of Florida, thousands of herons, spoonbills, egrets and pelicans have abandoned the rookery, possibly in response to low-flying drug-enforcement aircraft. Bird species are declining in most habitats and more than 12 percent are threatened with extinction.
Amphibians suffer the highest extinction and depletion rates (McCallum, 2007). More than a quarter of all reptiles are at risk and 37 percent of freshwater fish (IUCN). More than 100 mammals have gone extinct in the era of European expansion and today, 22 of the 30 surviving large mammal carnivores are listed as "endangered" by the World Conservation Union, including African wild dogs, Black rhinos and the few surviving Mountain gorillas.
Today, 22 of the 30 surviving large mammal carnivores are listed as "endangered" by the World Conservation Union. Photo credit: Andrew Wright / www.cold-coast.com
About 1.7 million species have been classified by taxonomists and about 15,000 are added to this list each year. Biologists estimate that there may be 30-40 million species, plus perhaps billions of microbe species.
The conservative Ehrlich/Ceballos study confirmed that the extinction rate was up to 100-times the background rate, but most studies estimate much higher: A Brown University study in 2014 estimates that current extinctions are 1000-times faster than background. A study from S.L. Pimm and colleagues in Science journal estimates 1000-times higher. A study by Pimm and Jurriaan de Vos, published in Conservation Biology suggests current extinction rates are 1,000 times higher than background and heading toward 10,000 times higher.
Thus, by any reasonable measure Earth is undergoing a major biodiversity collapse, almost entirely caused by human activity. "If it is allowed to continue," Gerardo Ceballos warns, "life would take many millions of years to recover and our species itself would likely disappear early on."
Ehrlich, identified the fundamental cause more than forty years ago: Human sprawl. Ehrlich and colleagues calculated in 1986 that humanity was using about 40 percent of Earth's Net Primary Productivity. Today, with 7.1 billion humans, we are using more than half of Earth's productivity and the other 30-million species survive on the left-over habitats. If human population reaches 11 billion, we will likely require about 80 percent, although such a scenario may not be biophysically possible.
Land and air vertebrate biomass on Earth, "Fossil Fuels and Human Destiny." Photo credit: Ron Patterson
The history of life on Earth teaches us that successful life forms—bacteria, forests, or tool-wielding primates—typically grow beyond the capacity of their habitats, change those habitats and set the stage for their own decline. Are we smarter than the bacteria? Will humanity find ways to slow down, limit our own growth and preserve wild nature? Our track record is not promising. Our desires, economic and religious doctrines and polluting technologies all work against the necessary changes. We need a large-scale ecological renaissance in human affairs, a shift in awareness that will allow human enterprise to accept limits on its own expansion.
Rex Weyler is an author, journalist and co-founder of Greenpeace International.
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The vast majority of SARS-CoV-2 transmission occurs indoors, most of it from the inhalation of airborne particles that contain the coronavirus. The best way to prevent the virus from spreading in a home or business would be to simply keep infected people away. But this is hard to do when an estimated 40% of cases are asymptomatic and asymptomatic people can still spread the coronavirus to others.
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Using CO2 to Measure Air Circulation<p>So how do you know if the room you're in has enough air exchange? It's actually a pretty hard number to calculate. But there's an easy-to-measure proxy that can help. Every time you exhale, you <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/ina.12383" target="_blank">release CO2</a> into the air. Since the coronavirus is most often spread by breathing, coughing or talking, you can use <a href="https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/dd7e/b2870c38f70e5285e5118ed6f158c091f7cf.pdf" target="_blank">CO2 levels</a> to see if the room is filling up with potentially infectious exhalations. The CO2 level lets you estimate if enough fresh outside air is getting in.</p><p>Outdoors, CO2 levels are just above 400 parts per million (ppm). A well ventilated room will have around <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1600-0668.1999.00003.x" target="_blank">800 ppm of CO2</a>. Any higher than that and it is a sign the room might need more ventilation.</p><p>Last year, researchers in Taiwan reported on the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/ina.12639" target="_blank">effect of ventilation on a tuberculosis outbreak</a> at Taipei University. Many of the rooms in the school were underventilated and had CO2 levels above 3,000 ppm. When engineers improved air circulation and got CO2 levels under 600 ppm, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/ina.12639" target="_blank">the outbreak completely stopped</a>. According to the research, the increase in ventilation was responsible for 97% of the decrease in transmission.</p><p>Since the coronavirus is spread through the air, higher CO2 levels in a room likely mean there is a <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/ina.12639" target="_blank">higher chance of transmission</a> if an infected person is inside. Based on the study above, I recommend trying to keep the CO2 levels below 600 ppm. You can buy <a href="https://doi.org/10.5194/amt-7-3325-2014" target="_blank">good CO2 meters</a> for around $100 online; just make sure that they are accurate to within 50 ppm.</p>
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The tiny island nation of Mauritius, known for its turquoise waters, vibrant corals and diverse ecosystem, is in the midst of an environmental catastrophe after a Japanese cargo ship struck a reef off the country's coast two weeks ago. That ship, which is still intact, has since leaked more than 1,000 metric tons of oil into the Indian Ocean. Now, a greater threat looms, as a growing crack in the ship's hull might cause the ship to split in two and release the rest of the ship's oil into the water, NPR reported.
On Friday, Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth declared a state of environmental emergency.
France has sent a military aircraft carrying pollution control equipment from the nearby island of Reunion to help mitigate the disaster. Additionally, Japan has sent a six-member team to assist as well, the BBC reported.
The teams are working to pump out the remaining oil from the ship, which was believed to be carrying 4,000 metric tons of fuel.
"We are expecting the worst," Mauritian Wildlife Foundation manager Jean Hugues Gardenne said on Monday, The Weather Channel reported. "The ship is showing really big, big cracks. We believe it will break into two at any time, at the maximum within two days. So much oil remains in the ship, so the disaster could become much worse. It's important to remove as much oil as possible. Helicopters are taking out the fuel little by little, ton by ton."
Sunil Dowarkasing, a former strategist for Greenpeace International and former member of parliament in Mauritius, told CNN that the ship contains three oil tanks. The one that ruptured has stopped leaking oil, giving disaster crews time to use a tanker and salvage teams to remove oil from the other two tanks before the ship splits.
By the end of Tuesday, the crew had removed over 1,000 metric tons of oil from the ship, NPR reported, leaving about 1,800 metric tons of oil and diesel, according to the company that owns the ship. So far the frantic efforts are paying off. Earlier today, a local police chief told BBC that there were still 700 metric tons aboard the ship.
The oil spill has already killed marine animals and turned the turquoise water black. It's also threatening the long-term viability of the country's coral reefs, lagoons and shoreline, NBC News reported.
"We are starting to see dead fish. We are starting to see animals like crabs covered in oil, we are starting to see seabirds covered in oil, including some which could not be rescued," said Vikash Tatayah, conservation director at Mauritius Wildlife Foundation, according to The Weather Channel.
While the Mauritian authorities have asked residents to leave the clean-up to officials, locals have organized to help.
"People have realized that they need to take things into their hands. We are here to protect our fauna and flora," environmental activist Ashok Subron said in an AFP story.
Reuters reported that sugar cane leaves, plastic bottles and human hair donated by locals are being sewn into makeshift booms.
Human hair absorbs oil, but not water, so scientists have long suggested it as a material to contain oil spills, Gizmodo reported. Mauritians are currently collecting as much human hair as possible to contribute to the booms, which consist of tubes and nets that float on the water to trap the oil.
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Polyproylene fibers found in one of the sampled sharks. Kristian Parton
Spiny dogfish. NOAA / Wikimedia Commons<p>"There appear to be two routes for these particles to end up in the sharks," Parton said. "The first through their food source [such as] crustaceans. Their prey may already contain these fibers, and consequently it's passed to the shark through bioaccumulation up the food chain. The second pathway is direct ingestion from the sediment. As these sharks feed, they'll often suck up sediment into their mouths, some of this is expelled straight away, although some is swallowed, therefore fibers and particles that may have sunk down into the seabed may be directly ingested from the surrounding sediment as these sharks feed."</p><p>Some sharks only contained a few plastic particles, but others contained dozens. The larger the shark, the more plastic was in it, the findings suggested. The highest number of microplastics was found in an individual bull huss, which had 154 polypropylene fibers inside its stomach and intestines.</p><p>"It's perhaps likely this individual shark had swallowed a larger piece of fishing rope/netting and this has broken down during digestive processes within the shark, and also broken down into smaller pieces during our analysis," Parton said.</p>
Lesser-spotted dogfish caught as bycatch. Kristian Parton<p>While this study only examined the stomach and digestive tracts of demersal sharks, Parton says it's possible that plastic would be present in other parts of the sharks' bodies, such as the liver and muscle tissue. However, more research would be needed to prove this.</p><p>At the moment, there is also limited understanding of how microplastic ingestion would impact a shark's health, although microplastics are known to negatively influence feeding behavior, development, reproduction and life span of zooplankton and crustaceans.</p><p>"If we can show that these fibers contain inorganic pollutants attached to them, then that could have real consequences for these shark species at a cellular level, impacting various internal body systems," Parton said.</p>
Parton in the lab. Kristian Parton<p>This new study demonstrates how pervasive and destructive plastic pollution can be in the marine environment, according to Will McCallum, head of oceans for Greenpeace U.K.</p><p>"Our addiction to plastics combined with the lack of mechanisms to protect our oceans is suffocating marine life," McCallum said in a statement. "Sharks sit on top of the marine food web and play a vital role in ocean ecosystems. Yet, they are completely exposed to pollutants and other human impactful activities. We need to stop producing so much plastic and create a network of ocean sanctuaries to give wildlife space to recover. The ocean is not our dump, marine life deserves better than plastic."</p>
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By Loveday Wright and Stuart Braun
After a Japanese-owned oil tanker struck a reef off Mauritius on July 25, a prolonged period of inaction is threatening to become an ecological disaster.
<div id="bb0a7" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="e5aefc0fff61ab1aea2f4b03c5399864"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1291765757013983238" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">The #oilspill is devastating but I want to honour the community mobilisation at the Mahebourg waterfront today (to… https://t.co/UWFkZFdjdi</div> — Fabiola Monty (@Fabiola Monty)<a href="https://twitter.com/LFabiolaMonty/statuses/1291765757013983238">1596815930.0</a></blockquote></div><p>"Booms are made of nylon mesh filled with #sugarcane straws all hand-stitched by Mauritian volunteers, empty plastic bottles used as buoys," described Mauritian journalist Zeenat Hansrod in a tweet. </p>
How to Tackle Oil Spills<p>The method for tackling oil spills depends on several factors, including the type and amount of oil in question, location and weather conditions.</p><p>"Once the oil comes to shore, the more intensive the cleaning technique. You can risk causing further damage," said Nicky Cariglia, an independent consultant at Marittima, who specializes in marine pollution. </p><p>"If you wanted to remove all traces of oil, the techniques available become increasingly aggressive the less oil that remains. In mangroves, you would have the added risk of causing damage by trampling," Cariglia told DW. Highly sensitive mangrove ecosystems line the Mauritius east coast that is threatened by the current spill.</p><p>Because oil normally has a lower density than water, it floats on the surface of the ocean. This means that for clean-up action to be most effective, it should happen very quickly after a spill, before the oil disperses. </p>
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