SUMMARY: Coming up on Radio Ecoshock two heavy hitters. We have the expert on past mass extinctions, and maybe the present one, scientist Peter Ward. Then climate scientist Paul Beckwith joins me. There is serious news about plankton, the tiny ocean plants that feed the seas, and provide most of the oxygen you are breathing right now. I’m Alex Smith. Welcome to Radio Ecoshock.

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Is Earth designed by life for life? Or is this a casino of chance, where catastrophe decides the survivors? Those questions, and more this week with Dr. Peter Ward on Radio Ecoshock. I can tell you Peter is a Professor at the University of Washington, and a paleontologist. He’s a specialist in the long history of Earth, it’s climate, and its periods of mass extinction.

In my opinion, Peter is also one of the most under-estimated minds in American science. His 11th book shook me. It’s called “Under a Green Sky: Global Warming, the Mass Extinctions of the Past, and What They Can Tell Us About Our Future.” That books presents the best theory we have on the mechanism of great mass extinction. That was in 2007.

Two years later he surprised us again with the Medea Hypothesis (Princeton University Press) which we’ll touch on. His 2010 book “The Flooded Earth: Our Future In a World Without Ice Caps.” stands near my desk, as a standard for the public. In 2015, he published “A New History of Life: The radical new discoveries about the origins and evolution of life on Earth” with Joe Kirschvink. It is radical science. We’ll find out why.

It’s my pleasure to welcome Peter Ward back to Radio Ecoshock.

Dr. Peter D. Ward

I saved up some serious questions for Peter, which touch on his string of books. We start by revisiting his now ten-year-old theory of how a massive extinction of land and sea creatures happened. That’s in the classic book (read it!) “Under A Green Sky”. I ask Peter to describe the organisms that created a poisonous atmosphere for a time on Earth.

These are bacteria that have a different metabolism than most life we know. They do not depend on oxygen, and breath out sulphur dioxide. That’s the “rotten egg” chemical you may have smelled in a high school chemistry class. We instinctively run away from that smell, because it is poisonous to our lungs.

Ward theorizes that when oxygen ran to lower levels in great warming of the oceans in the distant past, these sulphur producing bacteria took over from oxygen producing plankton. Waves of poisonous gas would have washed over land, killing off most life forms there. Thus we have a period of ten million years (among several such times) where there is no record, or very little sign, of life in the fossil record of rocks.

These sulfur bacteria are very ancient. They were on Earth at least 3 billion years ago, and remain with us still. You can find them in the bad-smelling oxygen-deprived parts under a beach, if you dig down. If oxygen in the oceans become depleted beyond a certain point, these sulfur breathers will come roaring back!

All this relates to the possible collapse of oxygen-producing plankton, which I cover with Paul Beckwith in the second part of this program.

A few weeks ago I interviewed the Russian scientist Sergei Petrovskii, now working in the UK. His work suggests that phytoplankton, which produce the majority of the world’s oxygen, could thrive as warming progresses, up to a point where many species go into extinction. The paper is called “Mathematical Modelling of Plankton–Oxygen Dynamics Under the Climate Change“.

The full paper is here.

Or you can listen to my interview with Petrovskii here.

Sergei Petrovksii told us he had not yet checked his model against the record of the ancient past. So I ask Peter Ward, who know about such things, if there have been cases of a dip in world oxygen levels in the paleoclimatic record, since the Great Oxygenation Event, about 2.3 billion years ago?

His answer is “yes” many of them. Ward tells us that each of the mass extinction events in the past 500 million years were accompanied by a reduction of oxygen. Listen to the interview for the full details, but this appears to further the concerns raised by Petrovskii – that extreme warming could lead to a plankton die-off and consequent loss of oxygen.

Download or listen to this 30 minute interview with Peter Ward in CD Quality or Lo-Fi


My next problem touches on Ward’s book “The Flooded Earth”. In Robert Scribbler’s blog, Robert Marston Fanney says sea level rise has accelerated. He writes: “From 2009 Through October 2015, Global Oceans Have Risen by 5 Millimeters Per Year“. He cites data and a graph from AVISO, the satellite altimetry data site.

On the other hand, very new science has come out suggesting a drier state of land is soaking up more moisture than before, limiting sea level rise. That comes from work led by J.T. Reager, a researcher with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

What does Ward see happening in this matter of short-term sea level rise? Actually, he prefers not to talk about short-term sea level at all. There isn’t a consensus yet about it, as new science comes out. What we do know is that sea levels WILL rise, and Ward documents the impacts of that in his book “The Flooded Earth”.


Here is a quote from a press release February 22, 2016 from the Potsdam Institute:

“Sea-level rise past and future: Robust estimates for coastal planners


Sea-levels worldwide will likely rise by 50 to 130 centimeters by the end of this century if greenhouse gas emissions are not reduced rapidly. This is shown in a new study led by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research that, for the first time, combines the two most important estimation methods for future sea-level rise and yields a more robust risk range. A second study, like the first one to be published in the US Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, provides the first global analysis of sea-level data for the past 3000 years. It confirms that during the past millennia sea-level has never risen nearly as fast as during the last century.

And here is a news story about that second breaking science story – that sea levels are now rising faster than they have in the past 2800 years.


Starting in the 1700’s, scientists, especially geologists, described the world a gradual continuum, where “the present is the key to the past”. The opposite theory, called catastrophism, was left for fringe writers like Immanuel Velikovksy.

Peter’s newest book re-writes the history of life on Earth, not from the viewpoint of gradual evolution, but from the many catastrophes that have occurred on this planet. That’s not just the impact of asteroids hitting, but gigantic and long-lasting eruption of volcanoes, the almost frozen times known as “snowball Earth”, and of course the many periods of serious global heating.

This new book also originates from Ward’s important earlier book the “Medea Hypothesis”. That is an answer to James Lovelock’s and the Gaia hypothesis. Instead of life arranging the best circumstances for its continued survival, Ward finds in the geologic record that life forms have often been suicidal, destroying the conditions required for survival. Does that sound familiar?

The new book is: “A New History of Life: The Radical New Discoveries about the Origins and Evolution of Life on Earth” by Peter Ward and Joe Kirschvink.

If life bumbles along through long periods between catastrophes, often of it’s own making, where do you think we are now? Are we on the edge of the next mass extinction, or could that be thousands of years from now?


It’s really strange. Peter when I talk with some of the world’s top scientists, it’s common for them to mention Peter’s theories.
Radio Ecoshock listeners ask about him. He’s been on PBS, Coast to Coast AM, and helped Animal Planet. Yet if I Google Peter Ward and climate, the top couple of pages refer to a man who really is on the fringe of climate science.

Yes, Dr. Peter Langdon Ward is a vulcanologist with unorthodox views on the causes of climate change. Rather than fossil fuels, the other Peter Ward claims volcanic eruptions and depletion of ozone from chlorinated substances cause global warming. It’s a different kind of denial, and yet the American Geophysical Union (AGU) continues to give this other Peter Ward top billing. Shame on them. The fossil fuel companies must love it – “we’re not responsible, it’s the volcanoes or something….” Yeah right.

Here are some links to the real Peter Ward – Peter D. Ward, from the University of Washington.

His academic bio, on the University of Washington site. The Peter Ward Paleontologist page in Wikipedia.

Here is Part 1 of my video interview with Peter Ward five years ago, but still valid.

Part 2 is here. Part 3 here.

Peter Ward on Earth’s Mass Extinction, TED-Ed talk 3 years ago. Peter Ward You tube video “Our Future in a World Without Ice Caps“.


The world economy is teetering. The weather is nuts and dangerous. So let’s talk about plankton! Those little critters in the ocean we never see, produce most of the oxygen you are breathing right now. They are the bottom of the food chain for ocean life. And they are in trouble.

Here to chat about all this is a regular Radio Ecoshock correspondent, climate scientist Paul Beckwith.

By the way, there’s a humorous album of photo-shopped Paul Beckwith here on Facebook.

Paul has two Masters Degrees, and is now working on his Ph.D. in climate science at the University of Ottawa. He’s a prolific communicator on climate, with emphasis on his research into abrupt climate shifts.

Paul says we are entering an abrupt shift of climate now, and we will have to do some kind of geoengineering to save a livable climate. That might include feeding nutrients to plankton, whether by dumping iron into the sea, and the non-scientist Russ George tried, or even by placing tubes into the sea, to use wave power to bring up nutrients from the depths for plankton to feed on.

The latest studies found a very disturbing trend. Apparently we’ve lost almost 40% of plankton in world oceans already, at least according to a 2010 paper. Paul Beckwith, tells us about that study in his new video about plankton posted on You tube two weeks ago.

Then a newsletter from Jim Thomas of the ETC Group said the loss was not as great as thought. The disappearance of plankton may be partly due to satellite misreading. Jim cited the paper “Revaluating ocean warming impacts on global phytoplankton”, published in the journal Nature Climate Change on October 26, 2015.

Paul says this new study implies a loss of plankton at about 8%, instead of 40% since 1950. If true that would be good news. But there is more research needed. At the very least, this new paper in Nature Climate Change tells us more about plankton’s response to warming oceans. Paul’s comments are excellent, listen in.

Download or listen to this 29 minute interview with Paul Beckwith in CD Quality or Lo-Fi

Paul and I talk about many things, like the impact on fisheries and world food, declining Plankton in the Indian Ocean, super warming in the Arctic and what that means for plankton, and whether he thinks the die-off of mammals and sea birds on the West Coast is caused by Fukushima radiation (he doesn’t).

Get all the latest from Paul Beckwith on his web site here. I also get a lot of good tips from Paul’s Facebook page.


Next week, Radio Ecoshock covers the coming phenomenon of food shock. This isn’t about doomer fantasies. The warning comes from government-funded institutions and serious scientists. Be sure to tune in for our food shock show next week.

Sorry to nag about money, but if you can spare some, I’ll need it for the new web page, blog, graphics and all that. The page to find out how is here.

We are out of time. I’m Alex. Thank you for listening again this week, and for caring about our world.