It's always a big event when I finally finish a book. Even bigger if it's a good book. The Sixth Extinction–An Unnatural History, by Elizabeth Kolbert, is a good book. It took me around the world. It explained scientific ideas in a readable way. It showed me that there are people out there doing the research that proves we are on a very bad road. Who knew that we have a natural laboratory off of Italy where they can study the effects of ocean acidification. There's a forest in Peru where they are watching trees move up in elevation to escape higher temperatures in realtime and a fragmented forest in Brazil where you can plot the decreases in diversity in bugs, birds, and animals.
Elizabeth Kolbert explains that the idea of extinction is a relatively new idea first proposed in 1796 by French naturalist Jean-Léopold-Nicolas-Frédéric Cuvier. Just call him Georges for short.
There have been five major extinction period in the earth's history. They have been caused by glaciation, global warming, changes in ocean chemistry, and even an asteroid impact. We, of course, didn't do anything to cause them, not so much with the sixth extinction. I have been convinced that we are a two legged killing machine. We have plundered, polluted, and eaten our way into every corner of the planet as our population grows and we are doing it at a very fast pace. If you don't believe me check out this Conservation Biology paper titled “Estimating the Background Rate of Species Extinction”.
“On the basis of these results, we concluded that typical rates of background extinction may be closer to 0.1 E/MSY. Thus, current extinction rates are 1,000 times higher than natural background rates of extinction and future rates are likely to be 10,000 times higher.”
Or you can check out this World Wildlife Fund report called “Living Planet Report 2014″.
“This latest edition of the Living Planet Report is not for the faint-hearted. One key point that jumps out is that the Living Planet Index (LPI), which measures more than 10,000 representative populations of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish, has declined by 52 per cent since 1970.”
Ok! I'm being gloomy. The book isn't all gloom and doom. Who would want to read it if it was. The book goes to great lengths to document our heroic efforts and great expense to save species.
If you read my last post you saw in The State of the Birds Report 2014, that conservation works. The Sixth Extinction has many stories about efforts to save endangered species. One was a graphic description of a doctor's arm all the way up the butt of a Sumatran Rhino.
Sumatran Rhino are the rarest of rare with an estimated population as low as 200. The decline in the number of Sumatran rhinoceroses is attributed primarily to poaching for their horns, which are highly valued in traditional Chinese medicine. In researching this post I've learned that the rhino in the book, Suci, died this last March at the Cincinnati Zoo.
You can also read about a researcher trying to arouse a Hawaiian crow (àlalā) in order to rush his sperm to a waiting female in Hawaii. There are only about 100 Hawaiian Crows left and they are all in captivity.
You can read about efforts to save the Panamanian (and frogs in general) Golden Frog and our North American bats.
Let me explain the title of this post. The earth history is divided into geologic time scales–supereon composed of eons which are divided into eras which are divided into period, epochs and ages. If I understand it correctly we are in the Holocene Epoch but has that ended? The Sixth Extinction has a chapter titled, Welcome to the Anthropocene.
In the field of archaeology I've alway been impressed by the layering of civilizations. Civilizations build upon the previous civilization. In a million years what will our thin layer look like? What will it tell future archaeologists about us? They are beginning to have that discussion. Who is they? The International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS) that's who. I bet you didn't know they existed. The ICS is the “group responsible for maintaining the official timetable of earth's history.” It has formed a Anthropocene Working Group which hopes to propose the Anthropocene as a new Epoch by 2016. I know–those geologists work slow:)
What are the characteristics of the Anthropocene Epoch? A Dutch chemist, Paul Crutzen, came up with the name. He is a Nobel Prize winner that co-shared the discovery of the effects of ozone-depleting compounds. His essay in Nature called the” Geology of Mankind” defined Anthropocene. It is a short essay but I will quote from it here.
“It seems appropriate to assign the term ‘Anthropocene’ to the present, in many ways human-dominated, geological epoch, supplementing the Holocene — the warm period of the past 10–12 millennia. The Anthropocene could be said to have started in the latter part of the eighteenth century, when analyses of air trapped in polar ice showed the beginning of growing global concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane.”
“The rapid expansion of mankind in numbers and per capita exploitation of Earth’s resources has continued apace. During the past three centuries, the human population has increased tenfold to more than 6 billion and is expected to reach 10 billion in this century. The methane-producing cattle population has risen to 1.4 billion. About 30–50% of the planet’s land surface is exploited by humans. Tropical rainforests disappear at a fast pace, releasing carbon dioxide and strongly increasing species extinction. Dam building and river diversion have become commonplace. More than half of all accessible fresh water is used by mankind. Fisheries remove more than 25% of the primary production in upwelling ocean regions and 35% in the temperate continental shelf. Energy use has grown 16-fold during the twentieth century, causing 160 million tonnes of atmospheric sulphur dioxide emissions per year…”
“Unless there is a global catastrophe — a meteorite impact, a world war or a pandemic — mankind will remain a major environmental force for many millennia. A daunting task lies ahead for scientists and engineers to guide society towards environmentally sustainable management during the era of the Anthropocene.”
The Sixth Extinction has received a very high rating of 4.6 out of a possible 5 on Amazon.
Next up is Naomi Klein's, This Changes Everything–Capitalism vs. the Climate. It's going to take me a long time. It has smaller print and more pages but I'm going to make the effort.