We've Entered the Age of Mass Extinction

Mass extinction is finally fighting its way back into the news cycle, thanks to recently scary reports on climate change.
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Mass extinction is finally fighting its way back into the news cycle, thanks to recently scary reports on climate change from the International Programme on the State of the Ocean, the United Nations Environment Program and the July issue of Science. But University of Washington paleontologist and author Peter Ward has been there, done that, and he's still depressed as hell.

"I wrote a book in 1994 called The End of Evolution: A Journey in Search of Clues to the Third Mass Extinction Facing Earth that said, within in a decade or two, we'd be seeing these monumental destructions, and people laughed at it," Ward explained by phone from Seattle. "I wrote a book just last year about sea-level rise called The Flooded Earth: Our Future in a World Without Ice Caps saying that things look pretty desperate for the next 60 to 80 years, and got almost no reviews. Luckily, I'm not going to be alive to see the worst of it. But the sad thing is that it's horrible to be right, just horrible. Somebody gave me the foresight to see what's coming, and I don't like it."

Ward's alarming work has been consistently ahead of the curve, and has transformed him from a rigorous scientist with no shortage of data to a climate-change Cassandra who scares the shit out of the status quo. At least, initially: was too hot, pardon the pun, to handle in 2010, but the National Geographic channel has based this year's series on its fearsome predictions of the significant sea-level rise that global warming has already priced into the environmental picture. Ward also appeared in every episode of Animal Planet's 2009 series , a CGI-rich program examining how different species succumbed or survived the various extinction events in Earth's extensive history.

His understandable professional and personal concerns about mass extinction continue. This summer, he's been hired by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to journey to the Philippines and the remote Pacific ocean and study the mysterious cephalopod Nautilus, a living fossil over 500 million years old that just might be reaching the end of its expansive evolutionary rope.

"If you want a canary in the coal mine, how about one that has lasted 500 million years?" Ward asked. "If it's going under because of global extinction, then we really have to wake up. This is the toughest creature on the planet, so if it can go anything can go."

After that, Ward travels to Antarctica to study rocks from the end of the dinosaur age, a period of high atmospheric carbon dioxide similar in degrees to our own. And he's working on another book called A New History of Life, hoping to entice publishers evidently afraid of the type of nonfictional dystopian futurism that they can't stop churning out in the entertainment sphere, where invented invasions, extinctions and catastrophes are exponentially multiplying. I talked with Ward about our more lethal real-time mass extinctions, methane burps, the Medea Hypothesis and more in the interview below.

Scott Thill: We've got heat domes in the Midwest and the East, and cool marine layers chilling summers in the West. In related news, up is down and down is up.

Peter Ward: Well, right now Seattle is 64 degrees. We've had the wettest, coldest summer in history. We're freezing. It's insane, but so is global warming.

ST: The International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO) put out a report claiming that ocean life is in line for a mass extinction of some sort. You've studied extinction events. What's your take?

PW: What we're mostly looking at are fisheries, because they have the best scientific sampling. People want to sample fish populations, so we know where they are and how to catch them, and we have a good idea what the stocks are. And it almost looks like everything is OK, except for the fact that all the damn fish we eat are going extinct. And of course they're going extinct, because we're taking them out. That should not be a big surprise. Neither should the other aspect, which is that the human population just keeps rising faster and faster. And habitat destruction has always been the number one cause of plant and small animal extinction.

ST: These issues are being reported as news, but like you say, they're not surprises to those who have been paying attention.

PW: The same goes for our economic problems right now. They're so obvious. People were writing books a decade ago about the decline of American empire and market crashes. But the economy didn't crash immediately, because we were selling our houses at inflated rates, so they were ignored. And yet, here we are. Everything they were saying turned out to be correct. We're never going to see less than 10 percent unemployment in this country ever again. You can't be a country or economy that pushes paper around and doesn't make anything in this environment. And expect everyone to make $60,000 to $70,000 a year? It's not going to happen.

ST: So how do you see climate change unfolding in the next 50 years?

PW: Unless we do something about human population, I doubt we will be able to do anything. The thing is, we're good enough at fixing diseases and feeding ourselves that we're not going to lose 20-40 percent of the human population. But if we could drop human population back down to four billion, we'd have a fighting chance. But we can't. I truly believe that we're heading to 10 or 11 billion by the end of this century, at the latest. We're increasing longevity with wonderful medical advances. But people don't realize that by increasing lifespans a decade or more around the world, we're decreasing the death rate as the birth rate keeps rising. So we're in a runaway human population situation, and have been since the '80s and '90s. The scary thing is that we've got an intersection of declining freshwater and too many people.

And the freshwater decline is due to global warming, which is raising the snow levels in the mountains. California is a prime example. When it gets to the point that it rains all winter in the Sierra Nevadas, what do you have when the hot summer arrives and you need that water for irrigation? When there's nothing to melt anymore by March or April, you've got a desert. So the agriculture of the San Joaquin Valley is in deep trouble from decreased freshwater and soil that is turning salty because of sea-level rise. This is the case all over the planet. The lowest lying lands have the richest soil, and these are the lands that rising sea-level is going to salinize.

ST: There have been other mass extinction reports in the news. The clathrate gun hyopthesis has received attention lately, although it's been benevolently referred to as a "methane burp" rather than an apocalyptic release of methane that hammered in the nails of past mass extinctions.

PW: Methane is four times more effective as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. The good news is that, once released, it only lasts about 15 years. The bad news is that it breaks down into CO2! Great. A very lethal poison that turns into a less lethal poison. The thing is that it's a slow, creeping death, and that is what is so horrible about the situation. Talking about methane is boring, so some have been thinking, "Well, maybe we'd have a big methane catastrophe. That's a good hook!" You know, maybe all the methane locked down at the bottom of the Baltic Sea -- and there's a lot -- comes up in a massive bubble, is struck by lightning and burns away all of China. That's a cool story, and vaguely scientifically plausible, but the much more important story is that the methane is just popping out and isn't burning like that. But it is burning in a different way by increasing the atmospheric temperature. I mean, look at what is going on with the East coast this year. I don't see Oklahoma Republican James Infhofe wondering where global warming is now, like he did when there was that massive snowfall. Oklahoma is burning up.

ST: Although extreme weather variation is a climate change no-brainer, the party line for the Republican base is that snow of any kind is evidence that global warming is a hoax.

PW: It just drives me crazy. Why do they think we're getting more snow? Because there is more water in the atmosphere! And why is that? Oh yeah, it's warmer. If we could teach science in school, these guys would get a clue. These are enormous wet-air masses that are anomalously produced in winter and work their way across North America and push up against the Arctic cold. Our course it turns to snow! It's more water that has been in that area than ever before.

ST: One thing that seems obvious above everything else is that climate change predictions are continually too conservative. Scientists always seem baffled by its rate of acceleration, which remains a mystery. Is that because we suck at exponential math or don't understand the climate, or both? Are scientists being too conservative, or are they afraid of honing in on worst-case scenarios?

PW: Probably a combination of all of the above. An exponential equation is way too simplistic to explain the changes that are taking place. Things are getting worse faster, but climate, and its feedback, is such a complex system. There are so many factors hitting it back and forth. Again, the single driver going on here is the increase in human population. Everything goes back to that. It explains every one of these phenomena: Global warming, marine extinction, changes in living patterns and even in the economies of the world. Way too many people, way too fast. And it's running away.

ST: How does your Medea hypothesis fit in here? Back when life on Earth was a bunch of microbes, the planet didn't have to worry too much about habitat destruction and maintaining an ecological balance. But it seems ready to fight back hard now that we're at war with it.

PW: I think it's simpler than that. My view of life on Earth is that it's a huge board game, and every species has but one goal: To take over the planet. And every species that could, would, if it got the chance. So we're just doing what evolution has pounded into us: Produce as many of yourselves as you can. Make sure that, as you produce, you aren't threatened in your production, and co-opt all the planet's resources. Kill any competitors and spread to every place that you possibly can. We're doing all of that. We get the prize, ironically, because of the brains that we have.

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