Are we on the road to mass extinction? More scientists, from different fields of study, say that is possible, as we pollute the atmosphere and oceans.
We'll explore that - the worst case scenario - in this edition of Radio Ecoshock.
I'm going to dedicate this program to one such scientist, Dr. Andrew Glikson, an Earth and Paleoclimate specialist, from Australian National University.
We featured Andrew Glikson in our Radio Ecoshock show, May 1st, 2009. You can download that free from our web site, ecoshock.org.
We'll also interview a top scientist from Yale, Dr. Mark Pagani. His recently released study shows a hot greenhouse world, just 5 million years ago, with CO2 levels similar to those we have already put into the atmosphere. We'll talk about what the IPCC may have missed.
And we'll keep coming back to the mother of all climate nightmares: the dying oceans, which could wipe out most land species as well. Including us. You'll hear clips from an important speech, "Brave New Oceans" by Jeremy Jackson, Scripps Professor of Oceanography. He too warns we are heading toward a mass extinction event. And Jackson is far from alone.
But first, we'll start with a drop of good news: Bill Gates, the world's richest man, has finally discovered dangerous climate change. Here is how Gates began his speech to TED, the Technology, Entertainment and Design series, on February 12th, 2010.
Bill Gates quote:
"I'm going to talk today about energy and climate. And that might seem a bit surprising because my full-time work at the foundation is mostly about vaccines and seeds - about the things we need to invent and deliver to help the poorest two billion live better lives.
But energy and climate are extremely important to these people. In fact, more important than to anyone else on the planet. The climate getting worse means that mean years, their crops won't grow. There'll be too much rain, not enough rain - things will change in ways that their fragile environment simply can't support.
And that leads to starvation. It leads to uncertainty, it leads to unrest. So the climate changes will be terrible for them."
"I asked the top scientists on this, several times: 'Do we really have to get down to near zero? Can't we just, you know, cut it in half, or a quarter?' And the answer is that until we get near to zero, the temperature will continue to rise.
And so that's a big challenge. It's very different than saying we are a twelve foot high truck trying to get under a ten foot bridge, and we can just sort of squeeze under. This is something that has to get to zero."
You can find the whole video presentation by Bill Gates at ted.com, and I've posted the audio on my web site, for those who prefer an mp3 to go. Gates describes a formula for attacking greenhouse gas emissions. It's remarkable that Bill Gates endorses zero CO2 emissions by 2050. Not reductions. Zero.
After noting the unsolved difficulties of capturing CO2, and trying to store it for hundreds or thousands of years - Bill Gates recommended a new type of nuclear reactor. Not surprising from the master monopolist, he briefly describes a nuclear tech he owns, called TerraPower. I may go into that in a future show.
The point is, one by one, even the billionaires are getting the scientific warnings about Peak Oil, and about a dangerous climate shift. Welcome aboard Bill.
ON TO EXTINCTION:
Now let's get on to the scientists who warn us the very worst could happen.
Five times in the life history of our planet, mass extinctions have slashed through the species. In the worst, the Permian extinction of 250 million years ago, around 80 to 90 percent of all ocean species, and 75 percent of those on land, plants and animals, vanished. We need to know why. And we need to know if that is developing now, due to our actions.
One of the most persistent voices is Andrew Glikson. Andrew arrived in Australia as a war orphan from Germany. Perhaps that enabled him to separate himself a bit, to view the long-term history of life, as recorded in the ancient stone of Australia. He began with the record of outer-space impacts, like asteroids hitting the Earth.
But Glikson early recognized that space forces did not cause all the dead zones in the rock record. He began to specialize in climate changes, as the grim reaper of species. And then he saw clearly, we are recreating the conditions for our own demise.
I get Andrew's new papers as they come out. I read them, and resist them. The message is clear, and it's frightening. It's simple.
WE ARE CREATURES OF THE ICE AGES
We humans developed in the rotation of ice ages, with air and ocean currents driven by the difference between frozen poles and the hot tropics.
If the poles melt, weather systems change beyond our agricultural needs. And oceans stagnate. Without ocean mixing, oxygen drops in the seas. Then, as Dr. Peter Ward has described twice on Radio Ecoshock, other microbes take over. These life forms don't need oxygen, and they emit hydrogen sulfide, a gas deadly to all oxygen breathers, including those on the land. Mass extinctions follow.
Could it happen again? In this lovely world? We can't believe it. We are programmed to believe in the ways we have always known. So, it takes many trips into this looming void, before the pieces get personal. Before we know the truth in our hearts.
Once again, dear friends, into the breech.
THE CLIMATE HAS ALREADY CHANGED FOR THOUSANDS OF YEARS TO COME.
For me, this round began a month ago, when Dr. Glikson sent me a paper about Rising Seas and Climate Skeptics. In it, he said that our current CO2 levels of 388 parts per million already commits us to 3 or 4 degrees of heating in the tropics, and ten degrees in the polar regions. Never mind what emissions may come in 2100 or 2050 - the greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere will drive us beyond the tipping point, beyond the possibility of human control.
How could he say this? On what authority? I looked for the foot-note, and found reference to a recent study by Dr. Mark Pagani of Yale. I hadn't heard of it. So I phoned Dr. Pagani, to find out more.
[Pagani interview][check back on our climate pages in the next few weeks for a transcription]
Here is a link to an abstract of Pagani's paper in my blog. The title is: "High Earth-system climate sensitivity determined from Pliocene carbon dioxide concentrations". In addition to Mark Pagani, the authors are Zhonhui Lui, Jonathan LaRiviere and Ana Christina Ravelo. It was published in the journal Nature Geoscience, first online on December 20th, 2009.
This is Radio Ecoshock. I'm Alex Smith. We are exploring the science and scientists who warn us: we are on the road to mass extinction.
It isn't just climate scientists who say so. I'm going to take just one more example, from dozens and dozens.
Back in 2006, Friday the 3rd of March to be exact, Dr. Jeremy Jackson delivered his "Brave New Ocean" speech. Jackson is a Professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and a Senior Scientist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.
I have only a poor quality recording of this talk, taken from a video which you can still watch online. Here is the link for the video. You must see it. Or download the audio from the ecoshock oceans page.
Jackson explicitly says we are heading into a mass extinction event, based on the dying state of our oceans. That is important for you to hear.
We begin with growing Dead zones off our coasts.
"And then the degradation of water quality in coastal seas. This is something we can actually study from cores, and see a chemistry. So there is very hard data to support this.
And so what you see is that all the things we valued in estuaries, - estuaries were the breadbasket of humanity, as it were. In the coastal zones, it's where all great civilizations arose. We've pretty much removed everything of value in them. And we've created all the toxic stuff in them instead.
And the result is the formation of more than a hundred and fifty major dead zones [in 2006] around the world in coastal seas.
Dead zones aren't dead. They are Pre-Cambrian and late Pre-Cambrian communities of microbes and jelly fish. And the only commercial harvest that can be sustained in dead zones is jelly fish. It's a major fishery, and they ship them to Taiwan.
The hyper-production in a dead zone is way beyond the ability of grazing animals to consume the phytoplankton, so they just die and rot. The breakdown of these microbes sucks up all the oxygen in the system. And so the water is anoxic all the way down from the very shallow surface area. And that's something to keep in mind."
Dr. Jackson laments that species are dying off faster than we can discover and catalog them. Biology has descended into being an obituary of Nature.
"In summary, Nancy calls this refining the obituary of Nature. Which is what I sometimes think ninety five percent of conservation biology is, unfortunately.
We are causing extreme habitat reductions in entire suites of organisms, to the point of ecological extinction. Who cares if they are extinct? They will be extinct. It's not worth trying to find out if they are extinct, because we'll never find most of them again.
This elimination of all these things that we used to value is providing the opportunity for all sorts of new creatures on the block, which are going to increase in abundance whether we like them or not. The Cow Nosed Ray is an example. All the seaweed on the reefs of the world is an example. All those microbes that we don't like very much are examples.
And of course, these newly established communities are really hard to get rid of. It's the Humpty-Dumpty effect. You know, it's really easy to break an egg, and it's really hard to put it together again.
And there are experiments that are being done now, which are probably the most important and exciting ecology that's being done in conservation ecology, to see whether or not you can overcome these thresholds. To actually restore ecosystems to something vaguely like what they used to be. But I can tell you, it's not a particularly happy literature.
OK. So, given all that, what are the projected long-term consequences of these changes, for the environment and human well being? You know the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment is a wonderful thing. And I thought it was really cool that is had scenarios. But those scenarios are defined in terms of what we can imagine. And in my mind, that's what's wrong with those scenarios.
Scientists are just really not good at sticking their necks out. It's takes people like this [points to Aldus Huxley], to write books like 'Brave New World' and '1984'. Right, and when you think about how 1984 was considered to be outrageous and how it's all true today - look at the [George Bush] Whitehouse...there is something to be gained from this.
Don't you love that. A book to be read again and again, and pondered before oblivion comes... [laughter]
Actually the best... I don't know how many of you have read 'The Time Machine' but read it, or re-read it. It's wonderful. Because our hero advances forward in time and he goes to a time in the future where humans have evolved into two species. The Eloi and the Morlocks, and the Eloi are the effete former aristocrats who are basically farmed by the Morlocks, who are the working class living underground - and they eat the Eloi. Because people have eliminated all animals on Earth, except for people, and they have to breed people in order to eat them.
And our hero escapes from the Morlocks in a very difficult situation, and jumps in his machine, and fast-forwards, and goes too far. And he gets to a time on the future Earth when the Sun is bigger. And there is nothing on the Earth but slime, and a giant crab that almost devours him. And that's.... we are going there!
OK. So the global ocean, you know there used to be a lot of big animals but we know what happened to them. And there used to be a lot of three dimensional structure, and that hung on long enough for people like me and Paul Bethea, and this is where we are going."
[The reference to three dimensional structures points to the flattening of the ocean bottoms due to trawl fishing, and the break-down of corals due to warming and acidification.]
Then we get to an explicit warning of mass extinctions.
"We heard about mass extinctions. I used to think... there was a wonderful meeting here six years ago [year 2000] on the future of evolution, that was organized by Andy Knowell and Norman Myers, actually. And there was a lot of parallel in that meeting to the meeting we are having here.
And I heard David, and Doug at that meeting talk about the wisdom we can derive from the fossil record, and I thought 'you know, this is really interesting, but I don't think it has anything to do with what is going on now.'
I mean, we are going through something really terrible, but I don't see ... but you know, the Permian-Triassic extinction, we're going there.
I'm going to show you three scenarios.
This is the hopeful one. This is the best humanity can hope for. Now you just think about how likely it is that we will cap and reduce nutrient run-off, and carbon emissions, and stop over-fishing, within the next two to three decades. If we do that, the oceans will stay well-mixed. There will still be oxygen in the deep sea. Dead zones will decrease. We probably won't have any mega fauna. But that will be fine, because Mahi-Mahi taste good. And there will be more Mahi-Mahi if you don't have big things to eat the Mahi-Mahi, and you know, we could have massive agriculture, and we could live happily ever after. We wouldn't eat fish.
But, if we fail to cap and significantly decrease carbon emissions - even if we stop over-fishing, and even if we control run-off, the oceans are going to become acidic as Hell. And they are going to be vertically stratified, because you know warmer water at the surface is harder to mix down into colder deeper water.
We are already measuring in the Eastern Pacific a decline in over-turn. We're already a decline in up-welling rates. We are already measuring a decrease in nutrient flux to the surface.
So, you know, the ocean could become not only acidic, but stratified like the Black Sea. The Black Sea used to have, before the Russian agricultural revolution - used to have a prospering commercial fishery in surface waters. But you know, it was stratified, and not a very good place for people in deeper water.
So we have dominance of opportunistic species in the surface, as in the first scenario. We have the demise of calcified organisms, including corals, mollusks, and major groups of plankton-like Coccolithopores.
Think about the fact that Coccolithopores made the chalk of the White Cliffs of Dover. They are the most productive primary producers, in Temperate, and sort of low Polar oceans. They will be replaced by something. Undoubtedly a cyanobacteria or something. And that would be good, bad, or indifferent, who knows? It's an uncontrolled experiment.
There is lots of experimental data that show that Coccolithopores just give up the ghost when the Ph drops to levels it will arrive at ... the ocean will arrive at the Ph in fifty to one hundred years.
And there will be anoxia throughout the thermo cline, and it's starting to sound like the Permian.
And then, if we just don't do anything, which is highly likely, there will be extreme nutrient enrichment on top of all the other things that I said. And so we'll have dead zones surrounding the land masses of the world. Maybe the dead zones will move into the open ocean.
The coastal waters will be too toxic for agriculture. You don't really want eat something, an oyster, that was raised in an environment that had Dynoflagelate blooms. It would be kind of a gastronomic Russian Roulette. Sometimes, it's OK. And sometimes it isn't."
That was Dr. Jeremy Jackson, from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
ANDREW GLIKSON’S NEW PAPER: “CLIMATE CHANGE IS A GEOLOGICAL EVENT”
At the start of this Radio Ecoshock show, I promised you the latest from Andrew Glikson, of Australia National University.
"We are living in an ice age. Mammals would not... warm-blooded mammals would have hardly been able to exist if conditions were as warm as in the Cretaceous. Although there were some mammals in the Cretaceous, mostly burrowing underground."
- Andrew Glikson, from our Radio Ecoshock feature, May 1st, 2009.
To get this message out, I'm prepared to commit relative radio suicide, by doing the forbidden. I will read out Glikson's most recent scientific paper.
It's four pages. It's scientific but clear. I'll elaborate a bit afterwards. Good luck, here it is as sent by email.
[A very similar version of the Glikson paper I read out is here on countercurrents.org].
Glikson has said:
"With a K2, the Cretaceous-Tertiary event, which has eliminated the Dinosaurs, and most of you will know about it - there has been a release of some 4600 Gigatonnes of carbon into the atmosphere. Which, once again was a major major cause for the extinction of fauna at this time.
Now when we compare that level of carbon release to what we, as a civilization have been releasing, so far we have released 305 gigatonnes carbon. But we have reserves, carbon reserves, of at least 4,000 gigatonnes carbon. And so, if in theory, civilization decides to continue to burn fuel, and then use the oil shales as well, we are going to reach the level of carbon - carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is going to reach similar proportions to this mass extinction."
- Andrew Glikson, from our Radio Ecoshock feature, May 1st, 2009.
PETER WARD EXPLAINS THE MECHANICS OF MASS EXTINCTION
And then there is Dr. Peter Ward.
"So we're looking at similarly aged Coral reefs of the Devonian Age. There was a big mass extinction among them. And we're trying to figure out why is it that, about 360 million years ago, over half the species on Earth rather suddenly died out."
- Peter Ward, from Radio Ecoshock interview
October 16th, 2009.
Here are our two Peter Ward interviews:
Under A Green Sky 2008 26 min 6 MB Lo-Fi and
The Medea Hypothesis 2009 25 minutes 5 MB Lo-Fi
The mechanics of how a changing ocean could kill us off, are best described by Dr. Peter Ward in two books: "Under A Green Sky" and more recently "The Medea Hypothesis". If you only read one book this year, make it "Under A Green Sky".
Here is Peter Ward, from our Radio Ecoshock interview in 2009, reiterating the well known thesis of ocean stagnation.
"Try to understand: if we had microbes at the major mass extinctions which seem to correlate to times of very high heat, and low oxygen in the ocean.
The oceans themselves can lose their oxygen if have a globally warmed world. If you think about it, what makes wind? Well, wind is simply air masses that are going from warm places to cold places, or cold to warm. Let's say we take a globe that has a nice cold pole, as we do now at both ends, and warm in the middle - well, the warm wants to go to the cold, and the cold to the warm, and hence we have beautiful winds. And currents, ocean currents.
And the whole circulation system is built on this world that is warm at one point, and cool somewhere else. If we warm the whole thing, relatively, there is no more driving force for currents. No more driving force for big air currents, or ocean currents. Things stagnate, and when they stagnate, oxygen goes away.
When oxygen disappears, whole different regimes of microbes can take over the oceans. And they seem to have done this in the past."
And finally, just a brief glimpse of how oceans can kill.
Alex Smith: "And then it seems like the ocean can somehow become poisonous, if I understand the theory in your book [Under A Green Sky]. Is that right?"
Peter Ward: "That's absolutely correct. One of the microbial groups that does best when there's no oxygen is a form that produces hydrogen sulfide, and hydrogen sulfide is a great poison. It's that rotten egg smell. And the reason we react so strongly to it, and hate it so much, is that it is, at very small concentrations - parts per million - can kill we humans.
Just the tiniest whiff of this stuff, we are so sensitive to it, because we know intuitively, or deep in ourselves, that this is poison. We cannot deal with this stuff. Stay away, stay away!
And yet, when we have an ocean with no oxygen at it's bottom, and worse, there's no oxygen at it's top, these microbes take over. And they can start producing (if they get enough nutrients) they can start producing enormous amounts of hydrogen sulfide.
Hydrogen sulfide is a poison to all animals and plants. So, it's not a good thing. And the microbes that produced this hydrogen sulfide have left behind little biomarkers, little bits and pieces of their cell walls, in these Australian rocks we looked at. We've got the same stuff coming from your nice Canadian rocks of the same age.
And in fact we now find these in about ten or thirteen time intervals in the past - all coinciding with rapid global warming, and volcanic events."
Of course, all this takes time. None of us will live to see the end of ice on Earth. But all of us may have helped pull the switch that began this vast process. The extinctions have already begun, as Jackson told us.
So many scientists have spoken out, warning of a coming mass extinction. I started covering this in 2005, after reading a popular book by Richard Leakey “The Sixth Extinction”. Just a few weeks ago, in the Radio Ecoshock Show for January 29th, 2010 - we heard similar worries from the eminent biologist Thomas Lovejoy, addressing UNESCO in Paris.
In addition to the long haul changes at the Poles, and in the ocean currents, there remain two possibilities much closer to us. The first, as Mark Pagani told us earlier, is that existing greenhouse gas emissions may already determine a much hotter world. Too hot to support the billions we are now.
But Andrew Glikson hopes we may survive, perhaps even evolving through the climate shift?
"And I have a particular interest in the behavior and the fate of these early humans, surviving during some of the sharpest ice ages, glaciations and deglaciations that have existed. To the extent of temperatures raising many many degrees over short time periods.
It's possible that the intelligence, the high intelligence of humans, has greatly benefited from the fact that they had to survive such fluctuations. And this gives us some hope.
It gives us some hope that our species is possibly more capable, than perhaps some other species, to adapt to extreme variations. But of course, civilization is something else again."
Beyond the long march to extinction, there is an even more drastic change.
One example from Earth's past is expressed in an email from an Ecoshock listener, Erik Phillips-Nania:
“Regarding your next program, I became familiar with these previous mass extinction events while writing my senior honors thesis in 2007 at the Univ. of Colorado at Boulder on ‘A Cultural Climate Change.’ I believe you'll be talking about what some scientists call the Clathrate Gun Hypothesis where, about 55 million years ago, the world experienced 5°C/ 23°F warming in about 70 years due to about 1,200 gigatonnes of gas hydrates. (Gas hydrates refer to both the methane hydrate (clathrate) reservoirs in ocean sediments and the carbon in permafrost zones.) There are 10,000 gigatonnes of stored gas hydrates compared with only 180 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide currently in the atmosphere.
The methane hydrate reservoirs are generally not considered for several reasons: it is remote and poorly studied, little was known about them until recently, and modern reservoirs appeared stable until recently. But now ocean temperatures are increasing and the ocean’s ecosystems are the most immediately impacted by climate change. Scientists such as Buffett and Archer (2004), Kennett et al. (2002), and Maslin (2004) all believe that methane hydrates may be the ‘dark horse’ of climate change."
Here are the full references used above: Kennett, James P.; Cannariato, Kevin G.; Hendy, Ingrid L. & Behl, Richard J. (October 2002). Methane Hydrates in Quaternary Climate Change: The Clathrate Gun Hypothesis. American Geophysical Union (AGU).
Maslin, Mark. (2004). Global Warming. A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press; New York.
Erik also cleared up something that has bothered me, hearing different impacts given for methane.
"One thing that gets me is that methane is almost always described (even by Joe Romm) as have 21 times the greenhouse warming potential of CO2. While this is accurate over a 100 year period, on a shorter 20 year period, it's effect is closer to 62-72 times that of CO2. It may seem nit-picky but it means short term impacts of methane (meat, landfills, etc) are grossly underestimated."
That explains why we hear methane numbers ranging from 20 times to 70 times CO2. It depends on the time frame we talk about. And if "the Clathrate Gun" can go off in 70 years, without the insistent emissions of humanity, the shorter and more powerful content of methane may come to pass. We don't know when. Some think that process has already started. Scientists are scrambling to measure methane releases from the sea-bed, and from the Permafrost on land.
For more on that, see the February 22nd article in the Independent newspaper, titled "Methane Levels May See 'Runaway' Rise". That's by one of the last environment reporters, Michael McCarthy. The subtitle says "A rapid acceleration may have begun in levels of a gas far more harmful than CO2."
Here is just another example of extreme and abrupt climate changes from the past:
"One example of abrupt climate change is an event that happened some 11,600 years ago at the termination of the Younger Dryads cold event, which was the last blast of cold climate at the end of the last Ice Age some.
Ice core records from Greenland show in less than a decade there was a sudden warming of around 15 degrees Celsius (27oF) of the annual mean temperature. At the same time a doubling of annual precipitation occurred. Researcher Richard Alley suggests that not only does the climate system have dials that slowly alter climate patterns, there are also switches that can suddenly shift climate in dramatic ways. (Source: Alley, et al. 1993. Graphic above from CLIVAR.) This abrupt event can be found in paleo records from many parts of the world, although not necessarily to such an extreme degree."
That quote comes from the National Oceans and Atmospheric Administration web site.
Or how about this one, as described by Joe Romm:
“UK Met Office: Catastrophic climate change, 13-18°F over most of U.S. and 27°F in the Arctic, could happen in 50 years, but ‘we do have time to stop it if we cut greenhouse gas emissions soon.’”
That news is from the UK government!
The present and developing extinction event is an open secret.
In last week’s Radio Ecoshock show, Gwynne Dyer told us governments, and the military, know the developing danger. Scientist Peter Ward got his theory into popular TV, on Animal Planet, a show called “Animal Armageddon”. You can order that on video. And like Bill Gates, Peter Ward presented at TED. But I still like his two appearances on Radio Ecoshock for clarity.
That's all though. The impending disaster, known so well by biologists, physicists, paleoclimatologists, ocean specialists, even cloud specialists - is not part of the general social mind. The message has not reached the public. Perhaps, the possibility of extinction cannot be communicated, using the minds we have now. Without any memory of such an event, do may lack the inner ability to comprehend it?
We need a way to process this kind of super-information, beyond more data, or entertainment, into personal awareness, into that deep biological core, where action to save ourselves originates.
We are not there yet.
I'm Alex Smith, and this has been Radio Ecoshock. Join us next week as we explore the first wave: economic and social collapse.
Get all our past programs, as free mp3 downloads, at ecoshock.org.
I'm sorry if I damaged your day.