Tag Archives: extinction

Possible futures…

One of the friendlier aspects of the planet we live on is the very slow speed at which conditions change. Over time, the continents drift about, and new mountain ranges or valleys are formed, and the oceans slosh around in response, but all of that takes far, far longer than the lifetime of any species, let alone any one organism. This means that life has time to adapt to the changes

The climate moves slowly too. When we learn about the ice ages, it seems like a lot happening in not much time. From a geological perspective, that’s true. There have been periods when the climate was relatively stable for many hundreds of thousands of years, but our recent ice ages – the ones our distant ancestors lived through – happened on a cycle lasting tens of thousands of years.

What’s interesting is that while an ice age, or an interglacial period, or a hot period can last for tens to hundreds of thousands or even millions of years, it takes far, far less time to get the climate rolling in a new direction. Huge, slow things tend to build up a lot of momentum, so once they get moving, they’re very hard to stop.

New research from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, looks at the long-term future of our climate, and compares the present with past climate changes. The results indicate something that many of us have long suspected: Even if we were to stop all fossil fuel use today, the planet would continue warming. Not only that, but the effects of what we’ve already done are likely to last 10,000 years or more.

I came to the realization some years ago that climate change was something I would be involved in for the rest of my life, but the reality is that it’s something that every organism on this planet will be involved in. This issue will not go away in our lifetimes, or our grandchildren’s lifetimes, or their great-grandchildren’s lifetimes. While we may have had an opportunity to prevent this future, that opportunity has been lost, barring some form of atmospheric carbon capture that works faster than the rate of increase from human activity, and from the numerous feedback loops that are already in action.

Of course, we can always make the problem worse – continued fossil fuel use, continued deforestation, and continued reckless farming methods could result in a much faster rise in temperature that would last much longer. There is no scenario in which it cannot get worse, up to the point where there’s no life left on the planet, so there will never be a point at which “we might as well give up” will be a legitimate argument.

But it is no longer enough to focus on reducing emissions. In reality, that hasn’t been enough for at least a decade. We need to reduce emissions, but we also need to prepare, if we want civilization to survive. We need to plan for a future in which the seas will not stop rising – not for hundreds, or thousands of years. We need to plan for a future in which farming conditions will never be reliable year to year, or decade to decade. We need to plan for a future in which diseases are no longer limited by the climates of different geographic regions.

Like it or not, we now live on an alien planet. It seems similar to the one that gave rise to our civilization, but it isn’t the same, and it will keep getting more different with the passage of time. The longer we avoid coming to terms with that fact, the more will be added to a death toll that is already climbing due to our actions.

It isn’t fair. Nobody in my generation chose this. A majority of “boomers” didn’t either. Not any more than they chose to be exposed to leaded gasoline or chose to be expose to cigarette smoke. And as much as I feel that I’ve been handed a problem that should have been solved before I was born, I’m one of the lucky ones. My country will do OK, overall. Provided we don’t start a nuclear war or something like that, we’ll do far, far better than the billions whose countries had no real role in creating this disaster, and the billions more who will be born too late to even remember when people were trying to prevent it.

I think that, as a species, we can weather this storm of our own making. I believe that we can, in coping with these changes, build a more resilient and just global society, and have a healthier relationship with the rest of life on Earth. We’ll have to, if we’re going to avoid extinction.

Like all those who have created or consumed post-apocalyptic entertainment, I can see many paths to a desolate future. I can also see many other futures, and they’re worth working towards. As a species, we have the power to build a future in which we surmount the obstacles placed before us by our elders, and to keep climbing to something better. There’s no easy path anymore – the easy path would have been to avoid this in the first place. But I can see futures worth working towards, and I think we need that right now.

Mass Extinction

Note: This post is relevant

A recent report has garnered some attention for its declaration that we have entered Earth’s sixth Mass Extinction – the first since the disappearance of the dinosaurs. They also state that humans, as a species are at risk of going extinct.

I’ve got lots to say about all this, but right now I want to address how we know what we know.

Most people not involved in the study of plant and animal populations don’t have a very clear idea of how scientists come to conclusions like this. There’s no reason they SHOULD, but having an idea of how we know what we know can act as a defense against those who say things like this are all made up.

When I was in college, I spent one week on some islands in the Bahamas (terrible, I know), studying a population of iguanas. I was part of a group of around 10 people led by a biologist who had been doing this for 20 years. This species only lives on three islands, and was almost extinct when he started studying them.

20 years later, with the help of the Bahamian government, they were doing quite well, and he had a massive amount of information about the iguanas, how long they lived, how many there were, what their breeding habits were, and so on.

This was achieved by spending between two weeks and a month on the islands about once a year.

This same biologist was doing similar studies of turtles in a couple places in Indiana, Nebraska, and probably a couple other places I’m not remembering.

I also spent time in Tanzania, and talked to biologists there who were studying everything from plants to elephants.

I also talked to scientists at the New England Aquarium that monitor fish and sea turtles populations all along the East Coast of the United States.

When I worked for a state department of natural resources, I spent two summers doing similar work to what I had done with the iguanas and turtles, this time with snakes. There were fewer of us studying many more populations, so it took us a full summer to cover about half the significant habitats in the state.

I also did some filing work for that department, going through the records of citizens reporting in about animals they had seen.

Now I regularly interact with people who are doing the same thing with bird species – counting them, weighing them, and monitoring how their populations have been changing for the last 50 years.

I’ve also been talking to people who’ve collected plant and bird records from scientists and hobbyists going back in to the 1800s.

This is just the tangential experience of one person, who studied biology as an undergrad in one college, and worked for a couple science-related organizations afterwards.

In the U.S. alone, there are thousands of colleges and universities that do similar kinds of research at different levels. Every state has an agency that ALSO hires scientists to do research. Every state also has people who closely monitor wildlife for their own reasons – hunters, birdwatchers, reptile enthusiasts, frog enthusiasts, fishermen, and so on.

Many of the colleges I mentioned ALSO do research in other countries all over the world, but all of those countries also have their own researchers and institutions doing their own work.

This work involves individually counting lizards, or snakes, or turtles, or birds, insects, or fish, or mammals, or plants, or sometimes number of flowers ON plants.

On every continent, in every country, in every habitat in all conditions of all seasons, there are thousands of people constantly monitoring the myriad of organisms we share our planet with – and in some cases rely on.

All of these people also share their data, and publish it, and cross-check it, and add it in to common databases that cross international boundaries. All of this work goes back generations, and as the human population has grown, so to has the number of people studying the world we live in, as well as our capacity to do so.

That is how we know that species are going extinct. That is how we know that the climate is changing – because for every person I mentioned who’s studying life on earth, there’s also someone studying the planet’s past, and someone studying the chemical composition of the atmosphere, and someone studying how those chemicals behave in different conditions.

The entire planet is changing all around us, and everybody who’s watching can see it.

A plea, a reminder, a call.

UPDATE: It has been brought to my attention that this video might suggest that my concern is the “methane burp” hypothesis, which suggests that a vast amount of methane would be released from the ocean all at once in a single explosive event. I don’t think the video says that, but even so, that hypothesis is not my concern. My concern is about an increasingly rapid release of methane from oceans and permafrost, leading to the events described in the opening statement of this blog. Nothing in global warming seems to act like an on/off switch, which is why believe that we are seeing the so-called “tipping point” in action as the arctic melts and releases more CO2 and methane from the permafrost and ocean floor.

Everybody who sees this, please read what I’ve written, and then please watch the video.

The warning in this video is what I have been talking about for years. It’s what I named my blog after, and it’s what my very first blog post was about in October of 2010.
Continue reading

Will plants and animals be able to adapt to climate change? For many of them, probably not.

One way in which deniers often try to say there’s no reason to worry about climate change, even if it is happening, is by saying that species will just adapt to it, and everything will be just fine. There are a number of other arguments tied up in this one, but only a couple of them are directly relevant to answering this argument. First, there is the question of the scale of the change. If we look at the current temperature, and assume that this is as warm as it’s going to get, then really, there’s no cause for alarm. Indeed, the letter from the Hudson Institute makes the case that in the last ten thousand years we have seen climatic changes like the current one, and in some cases higher temperatures. The article does NOT note that those events were regional, not global, and it also fails to take global CO2 levels into account.

NOTE: The relationship between CO2 and global temperature is not under debate by any reasonable people, and I don’t have space to address that issue here, so if you want to look into that, either send me a note and I’ll discuss it later, or go here and see if you can find your answers. It will have to suffice, for now, to say that the influence of CO2 on atmospheric temperature has been tested, calculated, retested, and confirmed repeatedly from the late 1800’s, through the military’s development of heat-seeking missiles, and is now the field of fourth-grade science fair projects.

So – while regional temperatures, may have risen comparable amounts in the last couple thousand years, what about CO2 levels? Since that’s what’s driving this temperature increase, and we know that when CO2 increases, it takes time for the temperature to rise in response, how does today’s CO2 level compare?

Temperature and CO2 since the last ice age. Data sources: Vostok, Law Dome, Mauna Loa. Continue reading

The Five Scariest Things about Climate Change

Not sure if these are the five SCARIEST things, but with so many to choose from, there’s no need to be picky!

Discussions with strangers

So one of my hobbies is discussing climate change with people online, mostly on Huffington Post. I do this for a couple reasons. One is that it gives me a reason to keep up-to-date on what’s up in the world, and the other is that it gives me a chance to help provide solid information to those who may have use for it. Not all of my comments are worth reading, but a minority of them are pretty useful, and I’ve found myself going back to refer to them.

The ones that I think are good take a fair amount of time to research and put together, and so I’m going to start pasting some of them here, both for my own future reference, and for the benefit of anybody who might find it useful.

I’ll post the comment I respond to, and the conversation thereafter, along with a link to the whole thread. Other people’s comments will be in a different color from mine.

So here’s the first, without further ado (discussion excerpt below the fold): Continue reading

More news from the Permian

In my first post on this blog, I discussed one of the possible connections between the “Anthropocene Warming Event”,  and the Permian-Triassic extinction, also known as “The Great Dying”.  Basically, one hypothesis about the extinction event, and its pattern – oceanic extinction preceding terrestrial extinction – is that a sharp decline in oceanic dissolved oxygen led to a proliferation of anaerobic bacteria, which generated hydrogen sulfide, which filled the oceans with poison, and eventually began to leak out of the water onto the land as a toxic gas.

Now another piece of that event’s puzzle has come up, and that is mercury. In a study published in the journal Geology, Sanei, Grasby, and Beauchamp used sedimentary analysis to look at oceanic mercury content from that time period, and found that there was a dramatic increase in mercury levels. The increase in mercury was caused by a high amount of volcanic activity (thirty times the present-day levels, according to the authors), as well as the burning of massive coal seams ignited by the volcanism.

This caused a mercury buildup that overwhelmed the systems that normally absorb the metal, adding to the ocean’s toxicity.

The authors specify that the present levels are far below the ones they measured from the Permian-Triassic boundary era, but Beauchamp added, “We are adding to the levels through industrial emissions. This is a warning for us here on Earth today.” (more and a video below the fold) Continue reading