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Man in the Holocene: Part One Earth’s sixth mass extinction Written by: Meghan Henoumont

Man in the Holocene: Part One

Earth’s sixth mass extinction

Written by: Meghan Henoumont

 

Holocene:

adjective

  1. of, denoting, or formed in the second and most recent epoch of the Quaternary period, which began 10 000 years ago at the end of the Pleistocene. The present.

A meteor slams into the Yucatan Peninsula: the sky goes dark, condemning three-quarters of the Earth’s species to extinction. Ice blankets the oceans, the continents lay lifeless, and the end of an era begins. Well, the end of the dinosaurs anyway.

There have been five such cataclysmic events in Earth’s history; one’s so powerful and swift that most living organisms died out before they had a chance to adapt. Now, scientist say, Earth is on the cusp of a sixth mass extinction event. Only this time it isn’t a powerful volcano eruption or a gigantic meteor. This time it’s us.

According to a landmark study published in Science Advances in June of this year, the current extinction rate is around 100 times higher than normal. Extinctions are happening at such a rapid rate they could surpass the incident that killed the dinosaurs in as little as 250 years. The study surmises that after decades of research on pollution, hunting and habitat loss, human activity is indeed responsible.

“ The smoking gun in these extinctions is very obvious, and it’s in our hands,” co-author of the study Todd palmer, a biologist at the University of Florida, wrote in an e-mail to the Washington Post. Since 1900, 69 mammal species are thought to have gone extinct, along with around 400 other types of vertebrates.

While this accelerated rate of species loss is alarming, according to the study’s authors, it might just be the beginning.

“ We can confidently conclude that modern extinction rates are exceptionally high, that they are increasing, and they suggest a mass extinction under way,” they write. “ If the currently elevated extinction pace is allowed to continue, humans will soon (in as little as three human lifetimes) be deprived of many biodiversity benefits.”

Extinctions have happened throughout history, even without a natural catastrophe or human disruption. In fact species are always dying out- In Darwin speak, the ones without adaptive traits, and are replaced with a more “fit” species. It’s a routine course for life on Earth.

What’s happening currently, scientists say, is not routine.

Under normal conditions, the authors of the study say, Earth should lose 2 species of vertebrate for every 2 million a year. Beginning to rise around 1900, we are currently losing 199 species per 2 million. That’s a sharp increase in a very, very short time.

Species are no longer living under normal conditions. Animals are being hunted for their fur, teeth and tusk. The forests are disappearing. Toxins are leaching into streams, lakes, and oceans and even underneath the ground. The global climate is changing and with it, habitats that sustain life.

The loss of biodiversity, brought on by these unnatural interactions, could trigger even more catastrophic events in the near future.

“ In terms of scale, we are now living through one of those brief, rare episodes in Earth history when the biological framework of life is dismantled,” paelobiologist Jan Zalasiewic wrote.

Still, the authors say we can avert the worst-case scenario. They give us one generation to make the changes needed to save not only ourselves, but also our world.

What Next?

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