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Earth Is Hurtling Towards a Catastrophe Worse Than the Dinosaur Extinction

Climate
Earth Is Hurtling Towards a Catastrophe Worse Than the Dinosaur Extinction
The current rate of CO2 emissions is a major event in the recorded history of Earth. EPA

By Andrew Glikson

At several points in the history of our planet, increasing amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have caused extreme global warming, prompting the majority of species on Earth to die out.


In the past, these events were triggered by a huge volcanic eruption or asteroid impact. Now, Earth is heading for another mass extinction — and human activity is to blame.

I am an Earth and Paleo-climate scientist and have researched the relationships between asteroid impacts, volcanism, climate changes and mass extinctions of species.

My research suggests the current growth rate of carbon dioxide emissions is faster than those which triggered two previous mass extinctions, including the event that wiped out the dinosaurs.

The world's gaze may be focused on COVID-19 right now. But the risks to nature from human-made global warming — and the imperative to act — remain clear.

Past Mass Extinctions

Many species can adapt to slow, or even moderate, environmental changes. But Earth's history shows that extreme shifts in the climate can cause many species to become extinct.

For example, about 66 million years ago an asteroid hit Earth. The subsequent smashed rocks and widespread fires released massive amounts of carbon dioxide over about 10,000 years. Global temperatures soared, sea levels rose and oceans became acidic. About 80% of species, including the dinosaurs, were wiped out.

And about 55 million years ago, global temperatures spiked again, over 100,000 years or so. The cause of this event, known as the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, is not entirely clear. One theory, known as the "methane burp" hypothesis, posits that a massive volcanic eruption triggered the sudden release of methane from ocean sediments, making oceans more acidic and killing off many species.

So is life on Earth now headed for the same fate?

Comparing Greenhouse Gas Levels

Before industrial times began at the end of the 18th century, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere sat at around 300 parts per million. This means that for every one million molecules of gas in the atmosphere, 300 were carbon dioxide.

In February this year, atmospheric carbon dioxide reached 414.1 parts per million. Total greenhouse gas level — carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide combined — reached almost 500 parts per million of carbon dioxide-equivalent

Author provided / The Conversation /CC BY-ND

Carbon dioxide is now pouring into the atmosphere at a rate of two to three parts per million each year.

Using carbon records stored in fossils and organic matter, I have determined that current carbon emissions constitute an extreme event in the recorded history of Earth.

My research has demonstrated that annual carbon dioxide emissions are now faster than after both the asteroid impact that eradicated the dinosaurs (about 0.18 parts per million CO2 per year), and the thermal maximum 55 million years ago (about 0.11 parts per million CO2 per year).

An asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs 66 million years ago. Shutterstock

The Next Mass Extinction Has Begun

Current atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide are not yet at the levels seen 55 million and 65 million years ago. But the massive influx of carbon dioxide means the climate is changing faster than many plant and animal species can adapt.

A major United Nations report released last year warned around one million animal and plant species were threatened with extinction. Climate change was listed as one of five key drivers.

The report said the distributions of 47% of land-based flightless mammals, and almost 25% of threatened birds, may already have been negatively affected by climate change.

Many researchers fear the climate system is approaching a tipping point - a threshold beyond which rapid and irreversible changes will occur. This will create a cascade of devastating effects.

There are already signs tipping points have been reached. For example, rising Arctic temperatures have led to major ice melt, and weakened the Arctic jet stream — a powerful band of westerly winds.

A diagram showing the weakening Arctic jet stream, and subsequent movements of warm and cold air. NASA

This allows north-moving warm air to cross the polar boundary, and cold fronts emanating from the poles to intrude south into Siberia, Europe and Canada.

A shift in climate zones is also causing the tropics to expand and migrate toward the poles, at a rate of about 56 to 111 kilometres per decade. The tracks of tropical and extra-tropical cyclones are likewise shifting toward the poles. Australia is highly vulnerable to this shift.

Uncharted Future Climate Territory

Research released in 2016 showed just what a massive impact humans are having on the planet. It said while the Earth might naturally have entered the next ice age in about 20,000 years' time, the heating produced by carbon dioxide would result in a period of super-tropical conditions, delaying the next ice age to about 50,000 years from now.

During this period, chaotic high-energy stormy conditions would prevail over much of the Earth. My research suggests humans are likely to survive best in sub-polar regions and sheltered mountain valleys, where cooler conditions would allow flora and fauna to persist.

Earth's next mass extinction is avoidable — if carbon dioxide emissions are dramatically curbed and we develop and deploy technologies to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But on the current trajectory, human activity threatens to make large parts of the Earth uninhabitable - a planetary tragedy of our own making.

Reposted with permission from The Conversation.

A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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