Of all species that have existed on Earth, 99.9 percent are now extinct. Many of them perished in five cataclysmic events. The classical "Big Five" mass extinctions identified by Raup and Sepkoski are widely agreed upon as some of the most significant: End Ordovician, Late Devonian, End Permian, End Triassic, and End Cretaceous. According to a recent poll, seven out of ten biologists think we are currently in the throes of a sixth mass extinction. Some say it could wipe out as many as 90 percent of all species living today. Other scientists dispute such dire projections.
“If you look at the fossil record, it is just littered with dead bodies from past catastrophes,” observes University of Washington paleontologist Peter Ward. Ward says that only one extinction in Earth’s past was caused by an asteroid impact – the event 65 million years ago that ended the age of the dinosaurs. All the rest, he claims, were caused by global warming.
Ward's study, Under a Green Sky, explores extinctions in Earth’s past and predicts extinctions to come in the future. Ward demonstrates that the ancient past is not just of academic concern. Everyone has heard about how an asteroid did in the dinosaurs, and NASA and other agencies now track Near Earth objects.
Unfortunately, we may not be protecting ourselves against the likeliest cause of our species' demise. Ward explains how those extinctions happened, and then applies those chilling lessons to the modern day: expect drought, superstorms, poison–belching oceans, mass extinction of much life, and sickly green skies.
The significant points Ward stresses are geologically rapid climate change has been the underlying cause of most great "extinction" events. Those events have been, observed Harvard evolutionary biologist Stephen Gould, major drivers of evolution.
Drastic climate change has not always been gradual; there is solid empirical evidence of catastrophic warming events taking place in centuries, perhaps even decades. The impact of atmospheric warming is most potent in its modification of ocean chemistry and of circulating currents; warming inevitably leads to non-mixing anoxic dead seas.
We are already in the middle, not the beginning, of an anthropogenic global warming, caused by agriculture and deforestation, which began some 10,000 years ago but which is now accelerating exponentially; though the earliest wave of anthropogenic warming has been stabilizing and beneficial to human development, it appears to have the potential for catastrophic effects within a lifetime or two.
Looking at the ancient evidence, Ward notes that ice caps began to shrink. "Melting all the ice caps causes a 75-meter increase in sea level will remove every coastal city on our planet." It will also cover earth's most productive farmland, the author warns, adding, "It will happen if we do not somehow control CO2 rise in the atmosphere."
An analysis of the geological record of the Earth's sea level, carried out by scientists at Princeton and Harvard universities supports Ward using a novel statistical approach that reveals the planet's polar ice sheets are vulnerable to large-scale melting even under moderate global warming scenarios. Such melting would lead to a large and relatively rapid rise in global sea level.
According to the analysis, an additional 2 degrees of global warming could commit the planet to 6 to 9 meters (20 to 30 feet) of long-term sea level rise. This rise would inundate low-lying coastal areas where hundreds of millions of people now reside. It would permanently submerge New Orleans and other parts of southern Louisiana, much of southern Florida and other parts of the U.S. East Coast, much of Bangladesh, and most of the Netherlands, unless unprecedented and expensive coastal protection were undertaken. And while the researchers' findings indicate that such a rise would likely take centuries to complete, if emissions of greenhouse gases are not abated, the planet could be committed during this century to a level of warming sufficient to trigger this outcome.
The last interglacial stage provides a historical analog for futures with a fairly moderate amount of warming; the high sea levels during the stage suggest that significant chunks of major ice sheets could disappear over a period of centuries in such futures.
Previous geological studies of sea level benchmarks such as coral reefs and beaches had shown that, at many localities, local sea levels during the last interglacial stage were higher than today. But local sea levels differ from those in this earlier stage; one major contributing factor is that the changing masses of the ice sheets alter the planet's gravitational field and deform the solid Earth.
As a consequence, inferring global sea level from local geological sea level markers requires a geographically broad data set, a model of the physics of sea level, and a means to integrate the two. The study's authors provide all three, integrating the data and the physics with a statistical approach that allows them to assess the probability distribution of past global sea level and its rate of change.
The findings indicate that sea level during the last interglacial stage rose for centuries at least two to three times faster than the recent rate, and that both the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheet likely shrank significantly and made important contributions to sea level rise. However, the relative timing of temperature change and sea level change during the last interglacial stage is fairly uncertain, so it is not possible to infer from the analysis how long an exposure to peak temperatures during this stage was needed to commit the planet to peak sea levels.
A similar study by a team of scientists from Bristol, Cardiff and Texas A&M universities braved the lions and hyenas of a small East African village to extract microfossils from rocks which have revealed the level of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere at the time of the formation of the ice-cap. New carbon dioxide data confirm that formation of the Antarctic ice-cap some 33.5 million years ago was due to declining carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Professor Paul Pearson from Cardiff University’s School of Earth and Ocean Sciences, who led the mission to the remote East Africa village of Stakishari said: “About 34 million years ago the Earth experienced a mysterious cooling trend. Glaciers and small ice sheets developed in Antarctica, sea levels fell and temperate forests began to displace tropical-type vegetation in many areas.
“The period culminated in the rapid development of a continental-scale ice sheet on Antarctica, which has been there ever since. We therefore set out to establish whether there was a substantial decline in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels as the Antarctic ice sheet began to grow.”
Co-author Dr Bridget Wade from Texas A&M University Department of Geology and Geophysics added: “This was the biggest climate switch since the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Our study is the first to provide a direct link between the establishment of an ice sheet on Antarctica and atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and therefore confirms the relationship between carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere and global climate.”
Geologists have long speculated that the formation of the Antarctic ice-cap was caused by a gradually diminishing natural greenhouse effect. The study’s findings, published in Nature online, confirm that atmospheric CO2 started to decline about 34 million years ago, during the period known to geologists as the Eocene - Oligocene climate transition, and that the ice sheet began to form about 33.5 million years ago when CO2 in the atmosphere reached a tipping point of around 760 parts per million.
The team mapped large expanses of bush and wilderness and pieced together the underlying local rock formations using occasional outcrops of rocks and stream beds. Eventually they discovered sediments of the right age near a traditional African village called Stakishari. By assembling a drilling rig and extracting hundreds of meters of samples from under the ground they were able to obtain exactly the piece of Earth's history they had been searching for.
Ward is encouraged that we are beginning to make changes in their daily lives and demanding action from their leaders -"that we are on a planet that has violent convulsions, and that we humans are playing with nature in such a way that we could recreate what were some really awful times in earth's history, that we really tinker with the earth's atmosphere at our peril."
The image at the top of the page shows a a very well-preserved example of a Paleoniscoid fish thought related to Rhabdolepis. The paleoniscoids were the first ray-finned fish, a feature readily seen here. Some 40 or more families appeared during the Carboniferous and Permian Periods. This taxon went extinct during the Lower Permian.