Extinction – It is Real, It is Now, It is Forever

We must appreciate that when we speak of extinction of life, this is forever and there is no going back.

Our best estimates place the age of the universe at about 14 billion years. Science tells us that the Earth was formed 4.5 billion years ago. Our oceans were appeared 700 million years after that. The first evidence of life may have been discovered in the shape of fossils of microorganisms that are 4 billion years old. These are cosmic time frames that our brains can calculate but our minds cannot fathom. This notwithstanding we should be aware enough to stand in awe at the scale of this creation.

Image of young woman with baby orangutan in burnt forest - extinction

We should be clever enough to understand that our own existence today, as well as the existence of all other sentient life, the existence of the life supporting planetary ecosystems, has been billions of years in the making. We should be intelligent enough to appreciate how precious and unique our environment is, how lucky we are that we are not alone in this vast universe and share this planet with so many other equally sentient species. The peoples of the world are slowly awakening to this realisation. There is hope but the fight will go to the wire and the stakes could not be higher. If you are not actively doing something to save nature you are effectively helping to destroy it. There is no sitting on the fence on this one.

The evolution of life over the past 4 billion years was tough and unforgiving. Evolution by natural selection is real but by no means benign. And yet collaboration between molecules and organisms won the day and here we are. We so far have discovered that there were five historical mass extinctions (dying off) of life on Earth. The first was 444 million years ago and the latest 66 million years ago. The primal cause for these extinction events was massive tectonic plate movements, volcanic eruptions on land and on the ocean floor, asteroid impacts and suffocation of the oceans by algae. These geological events set off a catastrophic domino effect that would have caused the life supporting planetary ecosystems of the day to turn from life giving to life taking. What we today call climate change was also present then.

Image of chart listing the six mass extinction events

In our time climate change (global warming) is mainly caused by greenhouse gases (air pollution) and the destruction and degradation of natural habitats such as the forests and the oceans. This is causing the collapse of the Earth’s ecosystems and resulting in the death of entire species. Humans are also simply killing wildlife directly.

We are now in the midst of the sixth extinction of life on Earth. We are experiencing the biggest species die-offs since the Cretaceous-Paleogene Extinction 66 million years ago that killed the dinosaurs. This is being caused just about entirely (99%) by human activity. The natural background rate of extinction events would be five a year on average. The Earth is now loosing species at one thousand to ten thousand times that rate with dozens going extinct every day. This is frightening. By 2050 we will lose 30% to 50% of all species on Earth if we do not stop now destroying habitats, polluting the natural world and killing wildlife.

Mike Barret of the World Wildlife Fund said:  ”Quite frankly, the solutions that we are coming up at the moment (for the declines in nature) are just sticking plasters. This is now at the point were as people we need to make a choice, are we going to let this continue or are we going to do something about it. Globally at the moment we are completely failing to tackle the loss of nature on the planet and that has to stop now.”

Humanity is displaying psychopathic behaviour. What is taking place is a heinous attack on nature that is without precedent. We have reserved the worst savagery for those that are closest to us – mammals, like us. 1131 of the world’s mammal species are under severe threat of extinction and the other 4360 are in sharp decline. The more wildlife we kill and habitat we destroy, the more die, as all life on earth is interdependent. The number of extinctions are snowballing as the planetary ecosystems fall apart.

Image of the slaughter of whales in the faroe Islands - extinction

In October 2018 scientists from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have published a study that shows that the oceans are likely to be absorbing 60% more heat than previously calculated. This is quantified in zetajoules. A joule is a measure of electrical energy. A watt equals one joule per second. A zetajoule is a number of joules expressed as one followed by twenty one zeros. It was previously calculated that the oceans were absorbing 8 zetajoules of heat annually – this is now thought to be a number closer to 13 zetajoules. To put this in perspective the International Energy Agency informs us that the total energy consumption around the world annually is half a zetajoule. This means that the Earth and the oceans are warming up much faster than we thought.

Scientists are keenly aware that the slightest increase in global warming would have catastrophic repercussions. Even an increase of less than one degree Celsius is likely to have an unpredictable effect on human civilisation and the natural eco-systems.

The IPCC study warns that the 2 degrees maximum increase over the pre-industrial levels (1850), agreed at the 2015 Paris Convention, is too high and that the limit should be lowered to 1.5 degrees Celsius. It is now quickly becoming apparent that, if we carry on as we are, our chances of success in keeping the temperature increases within these limits are pretty slim. The scientific consensus is that we should take bold and dramatic actions to stop all fossil fuel use in the next 15 years starting from now.

Greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide trap the heat in the atmosphere. When it comes to heat 90% of it would be absorbed by the oceans and 10% retained in the atmosphere. There is a strong inverse relationship between the dissolved gasses in the atmosphere and oceans’ temperature – the warmer the oceans the less gasses (oxygen and carbon dioxide) that are absorbed. The IPCC scientists have arrived at their results by working from two directions (a) by measuring oceans’ temperature directly via a network of floats and ships and (b) by measuring the greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere and inferring the oceans’ temperature.

Image of hurricane blowing in on the coast - extinction

The results converge – this is conclusive scientific evidence – global warming is real and it is happening and it is happening fast. The deteriorating state of the oceans and the increasing rate of melting ice affect the climate. This is why we have been getting increased bouts of strong storms and flooding events all over the planet.

Scientists and eNGOs are shouting from the roof tops trying to make us aware of the peril we are in. Far too many people are still in denial or too self-interested to listen. Now, more than ever, we need to be smart. Our representatives must take protecting and restoring nature’s ecosystems seriously and must be ready to act locally and with urgency as in the not too distant future precious little else will matter.

Article published in the Sunday Times of Malta, 2nd December 2018