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We are the Asteroid - Scientists’ Heighten Concerns About Global Extinctions

Posted on 5 August 2015 by greenman3610

This is a re-post from Yale Climate Connections

The global rate of extinctions, “already very large,” is “ramping up” . . . with climate change helping bring about that “acceleration,” scientist James White of the University of Colorado cautions in this month’s “This is not Cool” Yale Climate Connections video.

White’s concerns over extinctions are echoed by scientists James Hansen of Columbia University, Eric Rignot of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Gerardo Ceballos of the National University of Mexico, Jonathan Payne of Stanford University, Lee Kump of Penn State University, and Stephanie Kitkiewicz of MIT.

Rignot, for instance, cautions that the loss of biodiversity resulting from extinctions is perhaps “even bigger” than sea-level rise. And Ceballos says an under-appreciated concern is that there are countless species of plants, animals, and microbes on Earth that humans do not even know about: so many species not having a scientific name that “we don’t even know” the extent of the losses.

To Payne of Stanford, a particular concern is that the rate of species loss the world is experiencing is “much much higher” than the rate at which species naturally originate, with the inevitable result that global diversity is being reduced. Kump of Penn State says the current rate of species extinction is 10 times that of massive extinction events that have occurred previously, and he points to climate change and the high incidence of volcanoes as a “common threat” in those extinctions. Ceballos notes that some 75 percent of medicines in use come from plants and animals in the wild.

Journalist and book author Elizabeth Kolbert, says the public is “sort of inured” to news of extinctions and therefore think they are natural. That’s not the case, she says.  She points to the scientific consensus that an earlier massive extinction of Earth’s species was caused by an asteroid impact; she says some scientists have spoken to her of their concern that “We are the asteroid.”

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Comments 1 to 11:

  1. I had never before made the connection that a loss of a species is a loss of genetic information accumulated over billions of years.

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  2. My interpretation of the thoughts of Naomi Klein and many others is that the awarness of the unacceptable things going on in human societies and economies being raised by climate science, and other developing better understanding of the unacceptability of what has been developed, must lead to a significant change of what is valued and how its value is determined.

    Humanity developing to be a sustainable part of a robust diversity of life on this amazing planet has always been the only viable future for humanity, regardless of the impressions of prosperity that can temporarily be created by pursuits based on profitability and popularity.

    My MBA training and life experience help me understand that economically it is possible to have an advanatage if you are willing to try to get away with doing something you know is unacceptable. It will always be cheaper (and therefore more profitable and more likely to be popular), to do something less safely or more wastefully or to create more harm "if you can get away with it".

    Some major changes are needed so that the climate, and so many other things, do not continue rapidly changing due to the pace and rapaciousness of human pursuits. The current rules made up by humans have led to unacceptable developments at an unacceptable pace. Those rules based on the supremacy of profitability and popularity are clearly a failed experiment producing a reaction that is difficult to curtail or even slow down.

    That perpective raises serious questions about the legitimacy of the wealth and power of many of the currently wealthy and powerful. That is why attempts to better understand what is going on and raise awareness of that better understanding face attacks that are based on the rigorous science of manipulative misleading marketing. Appealing to emotion is far more powerful than appealing to reason.

    Unlike the hard work of science striving to better understand something and then sharing that an understanding that may be contrary to what many people prefer to believe, misleading marketing just requires appealing stuff to be made up as much as can be gotten away with for as long as it can be gotten away with. After all, there is lots of perceived, but likely unjustified, wealth and power at stake.

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  3. One Planet Only Forever @2. Your exposition, enhanced by your MBA training and life experience, doesn't address the crucial question. How will any government persuade its citizens to give up their aspirations for themselves and their families and accept a reduction in their standard of living and in their prospects for the future? You state "Appealing to emotion is far more powerful than appealing to reason" and a very strong emotional appeal to humans is their current and future personal economic well being. Serious attempts to reduce either are likely to be met with equally serious opposition.

    On another topic. In the piece from Yale Climate Connections it is stated "the rate of species loss the world is experiencing is “much much higher” than the rate at which species naturally originate, with the inevitable result that global diversity is being reduced. Kump of Penn State says the current rate of species extinction is 10 times that of massive extinction events that have occurred previously, and he points to climate change and the high incidence of volcanoes as a “common threat” in those extinctions"
    However it is also stated that "And Ceballos says an under-appreciated concern is that there are countless species of plants, animals, and microbes on Earth that humans do not even know about: so many species not having a scientific name that “we don’t even know” the extent of the losses".

    So if humans don't know about "countless species" how can we possibly know the current extinction rate is greater than 10 times that of previous massive extinctions? How can we possibly know the extinction rate is greater than the the rate at which species naturally originate? If you don’t know what you’re dealing with any comparisons are purely guess work. Realistically any comparisons can only be based on known species but perhaps the unknown species aren't being affected. Who can definitively say one way or another? And for that matter how can the true magnitude of the previous extinctions be assessed as again there would have been many unknown species?

    And one fnal question. Was it volcanoes or climate change that had the greater impact on previous extinctions?  If volcanoes then current attempts to reduce global temperatures may not be as productive as is believed in reducing species extinctions  

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  4. Re. Ryland...

    A rather extraordinary hypothesis.

    What, exactly, is your hypothesis for positing differential extinction rates between characterized and uncharacterized species?  That is a rather extraordinary claim and extraordinary claims usually require extraordinary evidence. What is it that you posit listing a species does that makes it more susceptible to extinction?

    For my part, I think all water in the abyssal oceans that has yet to be observed acts differently from water everywhere else. As you say: "Who can definitively say one way or another?"

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  5. Ryland,

    1. There need not necessarily be a drop in standard of living. Investment in R&D could even enhance it while still addressing the climate. Is it a sure thing? Of course not, but the likely drop in standard of living coming due to our impact on the planet is going to be worse.

    2. Not knowing everything about every species is entirely different from doing "pure guesswork". True many of these numbers are estimates but they are well informed estimates.

    3. Volcanoes or climate change? Not sure what you mean. Volcanic activity like the Siberian or Deccan traps released lots of CO2, as are we. It's not either/or. But "We are a large igneous province" doesn't make as catchy a statement as "We are the asteroid."

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  6. ryland @3 - to address your last question: In most past mass extinctions volcanic emission of greenhouse gasses drove climate change and ocean acidification, as well as other environmental destruction, leading to mass extinctions.

    More detailed explanations can be found here, here and here.

    The "volcanic" phenomenon that triggered those catastrophes should not be confused with the kind of volcanic eruptions we see in the modern era or even since humans first evolved. The events associated with abrupt global warming and mass extinctions are known as "Large Igneous Provinces." The most recent LIP was the Columbia River Basalts 16 million years ago - a baby compared to the end-Permian or end-Triassic versions, but still associated with a kick in global warming (although not linked to a mass extinction).

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  7. ryland @3 Your question about quantifying species loss is a good one. We can subdivide the question into 3 issues: the rates of species loss, calculating that from fossil evidence, and estimating the total number of species inhabiting the planet.

    To take the last point first, the idea that we still have not identified all the species that exist today, Bill Bryson addressed this eloquently in his book "A short history of nearly everything" when he described scientists finding new species of bacteria just by scooping soil from their back yard. Basically, the vast majority of those unknown species will be microbes of one kind or another. To compare modern rates of extinction with those of the past scientists use what is preserved in the fossil record, from microscopic plankton to large animals, and compare the species loss rates today with those of the past.

    To take the first 2 points, these have been examined and rexamined by science over time. The best recent summary of this that I am aware of is by Norman Macleod of London's Natural History Museum here (sorry full paper is behind a paywall). His paper summarizes the history of scientists' identification of several episodes when the rate of extinction (as indicated by fossils large and small, in the sea and on land) was much larger than the intervening times, notably work by Norman Newell in 1963. You can plot the extinctions by biological Family, Genus, or species and get slightly different results, but they consistently show several extraordinary eipisodes of biodiversity loss. The "big 5" of these mass extinctions are the end-Ordovician, late-Devonian, end-Permian, end-Triassic, and end-Cretaceous. But there are other less extreme extinction episodes in the fossil record, such as in the Capitanian, Aptian and Cenomanian time periods.

    With the exception of the end-Ordovician event, all have been linked to Large Igneous Province events and associate global warming episodes.

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  8. ryland@3,

    As I implied, the most unacceptable way of succeeding that can be gotten away with is the most successful in the current socio-economic system because it inappropriately values the easily manipulated popularity of things and uses a fatally flawed limited and distorted monetary measure to determine the value of things.

    That system can clearly encourage some people to develop an unacceptable desire to do the least acceptable thing they can get away with. And it has developed a lot of unsustainable perceptions of prosperity. Many people actually are not as well off as they think. They are only able to enjoy things more for a short while by getting away with less acceptable unsustainable ways of behaving.

    And as you point out the popularity of getting away with benefiting from unacceptable things is difficult to overcome.

    So I agree with you regarding what the problem is. But I am not sure you recognise it as the problem that it is, as the thing that "must be changed". You seem to believe that the perceptions of prosperity among the current more fortunate are deserved and must be allowed until a cheaper better way is developed. I disagree.

    The developed cheaper less acceptable ways of benefiting need to be curtailed even if it means that some already fortunate people actually become less fortunate. If the leaders of the moment of a specific nation will not lead toward that required change then global leadership will have to impose measures to induce such leadership to "change their mind and disappoint some of the people in their nation and disappoint the unacceptable ones among the global wealthy and powerful people." Mind you, as others have noted a good life for everyone could develop if the ones who try to get away with less accceptable ways of benefiting are kept from succeeding.

    That is actually what is happening. At the highest levels the battle is being fought between those who recognise the problem and recognise who the trouble-makers are, and the trouble-makers (those who want to prolong the support and power they get from the trouble-makers). And there clearly is no future for the successes of the second group. They can only benefit for a short time while they support the creation of more problems that the people they are fighting against will have to deal with.

    And the better understanding of developing climate science and all the other developing better understanding of the unacceptability of the trouble-makers will eventually win. But the longer it takes because of the ease with which manipulative marketing can succeed the more damage that is done by those who are not interested in understanding the unacceptability of their perceived prosperity.

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  9. The truth is that if the planet warms by 7.2 ° C to 8 ° C, then a mass extinction of all species would occur, including our species.
    If the planet warms 2ºC would enter into an irreversible cycle, but in reality we are in an irreversible cycle. I mean, the disappearance of the Arctic and has a huge influence on the destabilization of clathrates located bottom of the Arctic Ocean.
    Our impact, I'm not a demagogue or want to be a VIP person, our presence is like the impact of a large meteorite. We are influencing anturales cycles of all components of the Earth and in all components of its atmosphere. It decreases oxygen increases the presence of CO2 and other gases and chemicals that have never existed until humans appeared it shows.
    I was fascinated by the space race and the vital support needed by the astronauts in space. Astronauts need complex supports to live in space, are some supports without which it would be impossible to survive.
    As the atmosphere of the planet Earth has been generated over millions of years. Its nitrogen is derived from living things, there was nitrogen if no living organisms that generate it, just as there would be no oxygen. Our atmosphere would be much finer.
    But now, we are destroying our life support in the only planet where we can live. No other planet. Nitrogen decreases, increase the CO2 and decreases oxygen and increased concentrations around and diminish the other, to the extent reach us poison.
    The reality is that if we ourselves disappear.
    If the planet warms 2 ° C, then the entire surface of Greenland would enter into merger. 7ºC if heated, all the ice on the planet would enter into merger. Over time the oceanic conveyor belt will stop and the ocean is stratified.
    We will see major changes in the Gulf Stream, of course. Warming already affecting the depths of the Arctic Ocean in the area and as methane clathrates lso that area is issued. Also they are increasing methane emissions in Antarctica, but not much.
    And most troubling of this is that as we hope biblical migrations, we believe that much dessestabilizaran governments to deal with a chaotic situaicones aprte by overcrowding in itself, and by climate change

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    Moderator Response:

    [RH] Starting at the point where I've struck as warning, you need to support your claims with citations to actual research. 

    Please note that posting comments here at SkS is a privilege, not a right.  This privilege can be rescinded if the posting individual treats adherence to the Comments Policy as optional, rather than the mandatory condition of participating in this online forum.

    Please take the time to review the policy and ensure future comments are in full compliance with it.  Thanks for your understanding and compliance in this matter.

  10. Stating that the rate of extinction is 10 times the rate of previous great extinctions may or may not be an exact figure but it certainly indicates that something fairly significant is happening and needs to be taken notice of. It is just another indicator in the many lines of evidence that global warming and climate change is happening. It also seems that the rate of human caused erosion is 10 times the natural erosion rate. When taken with the huge rise in greenhouse gases due to human activity in a relatively short time and the high rate of forest depletion then it should come as no surprise that extinction rates are so high. Unfortunately, no-one seems to have have any idea what that might mean for us as a species. Let alone not completely understanding the Earth as a complete climate system, no-one seems to have a complete understanding of the Earth as a complete ecosystem. We don't know what will happen to us when critical species in the food chain that supports us disappears. Archeology and palaeontology studies all indicate that whenever humans settled an area of the planet without a human presence then the megafauna disappeared in a relatively short time. Also, this extinction was not all necessarily due to hunting but due to the human impact on their existing supporting ecosystem. Now that the impact of our activities is global, so if the past is any indication, rather than give deniers/skeptics comfort, it should give pause to all of us until we completely understand what is going on.

    Acting on climate change is the great challenge. It means a change in the technology we use to generate power and it means a change in the fundamental way market economies operate. In the past, technological changes that have had a significant impact on human society and made our lives better, like motor cars, electricity, aircraft,  jet airliners personal computers, mobile phones and other technologies now taken for granted, seem to have taken around 20 or 30 years to become fully integrated into mainstream society. This integration was initially driven by the well-off (and the military) choosing to buy the earlier versions of the technology, because it was trendy and something new to investigate. Because the well-off could afford the higher initial prices, it allowed the businesses to further develop the technology and reduce costs so that the technology could be afforded by the rest of society. The technology required to make the U turn needed to alleviate the worst aspects of climate change needs to be implemented in a very short time period. This will not necessarily occur in the needed time by simply waiting for the well-off to generate the necessary demand required to drive down costs and allow the needed technology to penetrate main stream society. I'm sure that if more people could afford it, more would choose renewables as their main source of power and it would become mainstream. Unfortunately, climate change is not necessarily seen as trendy by many of those who can afford to actually do something about it.

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  11. “we are the Asteroid” in several different ways the article didn't mention. At 65M yrs ago clearing the way for mammals, certainly our degradation of ecology, etc is as destructive, and if the Younger Dryas was caused by an asteroid hitting the Laurentide ice sheet, 12.9Kyrs ago, then we were driven to agriculture and Fire land management by an asteroid, with mammoth off the menu. Which is what we are now; genetically a product of Agriculture, we digest milk in adulthood, break down gluten fine, at least most all of us.

    I've always been a fan of the Younger Dryas, (quick-short, -10 C for 1000 yrs) Cooling, whatever the cause, as the primary force behind the Megafauna extinction, but now the DNA seems to say it's the Warming periods doing the bulk of the deed.

    Megafauna extinction: DNA evidence pins blame on climate change

    From over on Soil-Age;
    In this new study, I like the explanation of insolation as a trickle charge to our Biomass battery. It puts into perspective the relatively low efficiency of photosynthesis.

    Human domination of the biosphere: Rapid discharge of the earth-space battery foretells the future of humankind

    Over on a Google forum called "Soil-Age", as Walter Jehne says, (and I have been stealing it, adding biogenic aerosols);
    "Soil Biology is our only way to rapidly and massively draw down CO2 from the air to offset our ongoing and past carbon emissions, It Could safely and naturally restore the hydrological cycles by increasing biogenic aerosols and cloud albedo that could readily cool the planet by the 3 watts/m2 needed to offset the now locked in greenhouse warming effects and avoid the Storms of Our Grandchildren."

    After could anyone not feel good about soils?;

    Changes in Heart Rate Variability and Effects on POMS by Whether or Not Soil Observation Was Performed

    Soil Cheers & Palpitations,

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