A landmark study by an international group of scientists has concluded that planet Earth is on the brink of a mass extinction event comparable in scale to the one that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.
The researchers found that extinction rates are currently 1000 times higher than normal due to deforestation, changes in climate, and the depletion of ocean fisheries.
Duke University biologist and conversation expert Stuart Pimm says that “time is running out” to avert the threat of mass extinction.
If the crisis is to be avoided, humans need to make large-scale changes immediately, Pimm says.
“When you look at the range of unsustainable things we are doing to the planet — changing the atmosphere…massively depleting fisheries, driving species to extinction — we realise we have a decade or two,” Pimm warned. “If we keep on doing what we are doing by the end of the century our planet will really be a pretty horrendous place.”
The study compared historical extinction rates with contemporary data collected from around the world.
“We can compare to what we know from fossil data and what we know from DNA data…DNA differences between species give us some idea of the time scale over which different species are born and die. When we make those two comparisons we find that species are going extinct a thousand times faster than they should be.”
According to Pimm, the last time the planet faced such a significant extinction event was 65 million years ago, when, he says, a third to a half of all animal species on Earth died. “If we continue on our present course, that’s how much we will lose,” Pimm said.
The report notes that with the right intervention, the crisis could yet be averted. Conservation, education and “targeted preservation efforts” could slow down extinction rates, the report concludes.
More recently, though, some scientists have suggested that meteors and comets slamming into the Earth brought with them the very integuments of life, including water and a host of complex organic chemicals. This may be an indication that the Earth is preparing for a rebuilding phase.
“There are two ways to look at this message” says geologist Dr. Boron Misic. “One is in fear, and the other is speculating that the Earth could possibly be in a rebuilding phase. We simply don’t have the data yet to interpret why sea ice around the continent is increasing while land ice appears to be decreasing,”
Dr. Misic and other scientists are theorizing that a loss of species may be leading to a new shift of other life forms on Earth.
“We lost the dinosaurs and a third to a half of all of the species. If we continue on the present course, that is how much we will lose, how many species we will lose. And we know after the last time that it took 5-10 million years to recover. So if we destroy this beautiful planet that we have it isn’t going to come back overnight.”
But while Pimm admits, the report paints a grim picture, he says it’s not all bad news. He says conservationist now have the knowledge and technology to protect endangered species more effectively than ever before, and that targeted efforts could slow down extinction rates in years to come.
He also cites education as a crucial tool in promoting the importance of sustainability. Overall, he says the key lies in making humans part of the solution rather than the cause of the problem.