Wildly Disrupted

By Michele Bacigalupo

Photo courtesy of Airwolfhound.

Earth has already endured five previous massive extinctions, all of which can all be attributed to either geological or astronomical happenings. From a geological perspective, a significant portion of Earth’s species has already vanished from existence. The first five major extinction events left an abundance of fossils behind in the rubble.

According to numerous scientists, the sixth major extinction is already underway, and humans deserve the bulk of the blame. Only so much causality for species extinction can be attributed to climate change, in which humans have also played a significant role. The sad truth is that humans disrupt the lives of wild animals in order to better suit our own needs and desires.

We obliterate natural habitats for the sake of agriculture. Invasive species, often introduced by humans, kill off native populations of animals. Overfishing is killing entire marine ecosystems. Pollution contaminates the air, land, and sea because we have yet to come up with an effective solution for eliminating our waste.

BTR had the opportunity to talk with expert Colby Loucks, a conservation biologist with World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

BreakThru Radio (BTR): Are humans building toward the sixth major extinction in Earth’s history?

Colby Loucks (CL): Many scientists would argue that we are already in the throes of the sixth major extinction, and that we have entered the Anthropocene–the age of the humans. WWF’s Living Planet Index (LPI), a state of the planet report, found that over 50 percent of the world’s wildlife was lost in the past 40 years.

BTR: What would the effects be on Earth’s ecosystems if a mass extinction occurred?

CL: It’s difficult to predict, as the web of connections never ceases to surprise us. The loss of pollinators (bees, bats, birds) could have severe economic repercussions on food prices and availability. The loss of wildlife such as tigers or birds that attract tourists could be catastrophic for local economies that depend on tourism. [Moreover], many other smaller things would add up, causing unforeseen and likely negative changes to many ecosystems.

BTR: Do you have any ideas as to how humanity can put a halt to a mass extinction?

CL: First, we are currently using 1.5 Earths each year worth of resources, and that ecological footprint is clearly unsustainable to the human race. Some ideas on what can be done include preserving our natural capital and natural areas around the world.

We can consume more wisely, produce resources and use them more efficiently. We can also redirect financial funding to support and reward conservation and innovation rather than further exploitation. We can set up our economies to move beyond coal and oil to renewable energy.

BTR: What implications does technology have on species extinction?

CL: Throughout history technology has allowed us to expand our population, expand our food production (with the Green Revolution), and also help us get out of earth and wildlife damaging predicaments (such as CFCs and ozone depletion). Technology, funding, and innovation have driven the price of solar electricity down 80 percent or more in the past decade. [With the assistance of] technology, we can also find solutions, if we know what problems we need to address.

BTR: What species are expected to become extinct in the next few years?

CL: I would not venture to actually list any species–being in conservation means being an optimist–and I hope we do not lose any. Species with certain characteristics are more likely to go extinct than others. These include species within a very small geographic range, [as well as] species who cannot move (consider trees) to better or new areas due to habitat loss or changes related to a warming climate. Freshwater species are especially vulnerable. The 2014 LPI found that freshwater species suffered more than their terrestrial or marine counterparts over the past 40 years. As we continue to dam and pollute waterways, freshwater species become vulnerable.

A mass extinction occurs when approximately 75 percent of species disappears. Scientists remain unsure as to how long the damage of the sixth extinction may continue. It may persist for the next hundred years, or even the next thousand. It’s impossible to predict rates of extinction, since so many variables remain unknown.

The most destructive extinction event to date was the Permian-Triassic extinction event. During the extinction, which took place 250 million years ago, Earth lost 70 percent of land species and 96 percent of marine species. Due to the vast amount of damage inflicted, some scientists refer to the event as the Great Dying. Most experts agree that the event was caused by a gigantic volcanic eruption, which polluted the atmosphere with a large quantity of carbon dioxide.

For the ongoing sixth extinction, humanity has replaced the volcano. Since the rise of the Industrial Revolution, Homo sapiens continue to permeate the air with massive amounts of carbon dioxide. The burning of fossil fuels, such as oil, coal, and natural gas, account for most human-caused carbon dioxide emissions. Alarmingly, we may end up repeating “natural” history.