Are we really approaching another mass extinction?

Are we really approaching another mass extinction? Approaching is a very vague term. The Wagamama takeout we ordered for lunch is (allegedly) approaching, but then so too is the end of the solar system (as the sun expands to the point of becoming a Red Giant, at which point it will destroy every planet in its orbit). Experts, however, predict that it won’t be here for another five billion years… while the end of the world is predicted for a date soon after. The point is, time is subjective and once you get your head around that fact, extinctions are actually nothing new or even special.

The universe is estimated to be around 13 billion years old, while the Earth was created around 4.5 billion years ago. And if the history of our planet was represented by a 24-hour day, then human beings have only been on the scene for about 4.7 seconds. We’re new, and our planet has already experienced five mass extinctions. So what of the news that a sixth is coming?

For an answer we must look to the oceans. The International Programme on the State of the Ocean and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature announced recently that marine life is facing a mass extinction “within one human generation”. A panel of 27 scientists concluded that a “combination of stressors is creating the conditions associated with every previous major extinction of species in Earth’s history.”

The three main observations of the panel were as follows: the degeneration of our oceans is happening far faster than anyone predicted; many of the negative impacts are greater than the present worst-case scenarios; and the first steps to global extinction have already begun.

This is happening because the build-up of CO2, blamed by the U.N. panel of climate scientists on fossil fuels, is heating the planet. Absorbed into the oceans, it causes acidification, while run-off of fertilisers and pollution stokes anoxia — an absence of oxygen causing ocean dead zones. Increasingly low oxygen levels, combined with warming of the ocean and acidification, are the three factors which have been present in every mass extinction event in Earth’s history.

Overfishing is adding to the problem, having reduced some commercial fish populations by more than 90 percent. The hammour in this region is one of the most overfished on the planet and dying out at a rapid rate. If you eat hammour you’re helping send it towards extinction. Things like this matter.

The hammour  is one of the most overfished on the planet and dying out at a rapid rate. If you eat hammour you’re helping send it towards extinction.

Biodiversity is fundamental for life on Earth, so what’s bad for the oceans is very bad for us. The problem is reversible, but the odds of it being reversed seem slim. Corporations won’t stop polluting if it greatly affects profits (it does) and the same goes for overfishing.

But it’s not just greedy corporations; it’s how we all live every day, in ways that we’re not apt to change any time soon. For instance, the UAE is the world’s second largest consumer of water per capita and the desalination required to give us that fresh water greatly impacts the ecosystem. Turn on the tap and you’re part of the problem. Desalination costs the UAE millions every day, but the often-ignored cost is to the environment. Between them, the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi, Kuwait and Iran have 120 desalination plants all flushing nearly 24 tons of chlorine, 65 tons of algae-harming antiscalants (used to descale pipes) and around 300kg of copper into the Persian Gulf every day.

That’s just one of many worldwide examples of how the current mass extinction is gathering pace.

It’s also worth remembering that the great extinctions of the past occurred without the cack-handed influence of mankind’s destructive behaviour, so now we’re here the Earth really is struggling to cope. You have to go back 65 million years for the last one (the End Cretaceous period) when the final non-avian dinosaurs were wiped out.

It’s generally thought that an asteroid or volcanoes were to blame. The biggest extinction (the end of the Permian period), some 251 million years ago, was kick-started by climate change, in this case caused by volcanic eruptions at the Siberian Traps that led to an 8°C rise in temperature and an increase in CO2 levels by 2,000ppm. Known as the “great dying”, around 96 percent of marine species were lost, as well as 75 percent of terrestrial species.

Current average temperatures have climbed 0.8°C around the world since 1880, much of this in recent decades, according to NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and the rate of warming is increasing. The 20th Century’s last two decades were the hottest in 400 years. Once you throw in the other (indisputably) man-made factors, the oceans are in real trouble.

Life on Earth, however, is disposable and we’d be arrogant to think we will be around forever. Of all the species that have lived on planet Earth since life first appeared, only about one in every thousand is still living today. So while the hammour may well go soon, in galactic terms it’s highly likely that we’ll all follow it in a few blinks of the universe’s eye.

For Esquire Magazine – click here for PDF

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