Saturday, January 17, 2015

Signs of the sixth extinction: What happens when apes rule the earth

To borrow from Pogo, we have met the apes and they is us. And we are not doing a good job of caring for our dominion. Here is a sample from a story from the NY Times on a recent study.

A team of scientists, in a groundbreaking analysis of data from hundreds of sources, has concluded that humans are on the verge of causing unprecedented damage to the oceans and the animals living in them.

"We may be sitting on a precipice of a major extinction event," said Douglas J. McCauley, an ecologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and an author of the new research, which was published on Thursday in the journal Science.

There are clear signs already that humans are harming the oceans to a remarkable degree, the scientists found. Some ocean species are certainly overharvested, but even greater damage results from large-scale habitat loss, which is likely to accelerate as technology advances the human footprint, the scientists reported.

Coral reefs, for example, have declined by 40 percent worldwide, partly as a result of climate-change-driven warming.

As some of you might know, I've spent over 30 years pursuing my hobby of scuba diving and underwater photography. I think the 40 percent statistic is an underestimate, at least for some tropical regions. I've seen estimates as high as 80% for the Caribbean (and that squares with my own experience).

Some fish are migrating to cooler waters already. Black sea bass, once most common off the coast of Virginia, have moved up to New Jersey. Less fortunate species may not be able to find new ranges. At the same time, carbon emissions are altering the chemistry of seawater, making it more acidic.

"If you cranked up the aquarium heater and dumped some acid in the water, your fish would not be very happy," Dr. Pinsky said. "In effect, that’s what we’re doing to the oceans."

Here is another NY Times summary of findings on global warming.

Last year was the hottest on Earth since record-keeping began in 1880, scientists reported on Friday, underscoring warnings about the risks of runaway greenhouse gas emissions and undermining claims by climate change contrarians that global warming had somehow stopped.

Extreme heat blanketed Alaska and much of the western United States last year. Records were set across large areas of every inhabited continent. And the ocean surface was unusually warm virtually everywhere except near Antarctica, the scientists said, providing the energy that fueled damaging Pacific storms.

In the annals of climatology, 2014 surpassed 2010 as the warmest year. The 10 warmest years have all occurred since 1997, a reflection of the relentless planetary warming that scientists say is a consequence of human activity and poses profound long-term risks to civilization and nature.

What about our corner of the planet, the American west?

... last year’s extreme warmth in the West meant that Alaska, Arizona, California and Nevada all set temperature records. Some parts of California essentially had no winter last year, with temperatures sometimes running 10 to 15 degrees above normal for the season. The temperature in Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city, never fell below zero in 2014, the first time that has happened in 101 years of record-keeping for the city.

Do check out the Times article; it has some good graphical depictions of the warming trend.

I grant that not many of us will run off and read original research articles in Science. But you can and should read the book The Sixth Extinction. It will scare the bejesus out of you. Us apes are transforming the planet at a rate never before seen in geological history. And we are not changing things for the better. Buy the book. Read it.

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