Saving Wildlife from Mass Extinction due to Global Warming

Articles, Blogs & Letters
on Global Warming

Articles, Blogs & Letters

Saving Wildlife
Mass Extinction
due to
Global Warming

Anthony Marr

1. The Present

Today is January 27, Sunday, 2008 AD. Over the last 11 days, the Vancouver Sun newspaper ran the following articles:

• Jan. 16 – Climate Change Policy, Transportation Reality – setting out to drastically reduce emissions
• Jan. 18 - Chinese Drought Hits Energy – power output from dams dries up, forcing a switch to coal and oil
• Jan. 18 - Scientists Shocked at Size of Arctic Ice Cracks - some unprecedented fissures over 100 kilometers across
Jan. 21 - Carbon Taxes: The Road to Economic Ruin or a Plan to Help the Planet?
• Jan. 23 - Humans Have Pushed Planet Into A New Geological Era, Experts Say
• Jan. 24 - Arctic Sees Major Ice-Cap Retreat - area lost in 2 years equals twice the size of France, study finds
• Jan. 24 - Melting Glaciers Threaten to Flood Himalayan Settlement, Group Says
• Jan. 24 - Brazil Tries to Slow Amazon Deforestation
• Jan. 26 – University of Victoria to Lead New Climate Institute

These are just a few sample signs of our time. The Jan. 23 article is particularly pivotal. We are now standing on the edge, looking down into a bottomless abyss, an abyss to which we have never been so close before, a yawning chasm half filled with extinct species bygone. One more step, and we will join them, and since we have so many strings attached, we’ll drag hundreds of thousands or even millions of species down with us.

Our civilization was born in the Holocene Epoch some 10,000 ago, which has lasted until the present – both the civilization and the epoch. But the epoch has just come to an end (google the article dated Jan. 23). What does this signify for the civilization, and for the species Homo sapiens upon which it is based, and the millions of species currently in the process of being driven to extinction by Homo sapiens, including possibly Homo sapiens itself, and the biosphere of the planet Earth, and to mother Earth herself?

One thing is for certain, the Holocene Epoch may have ended, but the Holocene Extinction (yes, this term exists) has just begun.

It is the Anthropocene Epoch now. Anthropocene means “human cause”. Theoretically, the Anthropocene Epoch started with the Industrial Revolution little more than a century ago. Hopefully, like the Holocene, it will last ten thousand years or more, but it could also be the beginning of the end. Even if we stopped burning fossil fuels this very second for good, the atmosphere and oceans will still continue to warm up due to the greenhouse gasses already accumulated in the atmosphere, and oceanic acidification and anoxia will still continue to worsen, and species by the hundreds of thousands will still go extinct, beginning with the polar bear and the harp seals, and almost all coral reefs, in the very near future. But back to the Vancouver Sun meanwhile:

• Jan. 25 - Alberta Climate Plan Lets Industry Avoid New Limits – province to let emissions rise over a decade before cuts take hold – “It would be very difficult to bring in real restrictions… without devastating the economy and quality of life of Albertans,” said Ed Stelmach, Alberta premier.

With every day’s delay in implementing global warming counter measures, a few thousand more species will be extinct by 2100. Stelmach is selling our children for his oil revenue, and trading the survival of millions of species, including our own, for another generation of Hummers. I don’t think he understands anything about long term economy, or know what “quality of life” means. I won’t waste my breath to ask him about the meaning of life, that’s for damn sure.

The 4th Assessment Report of the International Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) released in 2007 presented five computer generated scenarios regarding the future usages of the fossil fuels and their environmental consequences. The best case scenario stipulates a global stabilization of fossil fuels consumption rate at the AD 2,000 level, which is practically impossible, let alone stopping fossil fuels usage immediately or sooner, but even so, the 2100 global temperature would still rise by about 2oC, and the polar bear and the harp seal and the coral reefs will still go extinct.

Three intermediate scenarios stipulate a range of moderate increases in fossil fuels consumption for several decades before declining at various rates. They led to a temperature rise of 2-6oC by 2100. A 6oC rise is a very serious matter; it is at or near the point of no return for our own survivability, and the tipping point of the runaway greenhouse effect. The worse case scenario in the IPCC report aligns very well with Stelmach’s plan, which will send the global temperature through the roof, the roof being a 10oC rise.

And none of the scenarios even took into account methane clathrate as a factor (see below). Methane clathrate (methane hydrate) – the most dangerous stuff on Earth today, even more so than all the nukes in the world combined.

All in all, up to this point, most if not all of the past predictions about the present have fallen short, some time way short, of the rate at which global warming and its retinue of evils unfold in the real world.

I will show you in the next section what a 10oC global temperature rise can do, and indeed has done.

2. Five Blasts from the Past

The Planet Earth was formed 4.6 billion years ago. About 3.3 billion years ago, life originated in the form of unicellular organisms. About 600 million years ago, unicellular life gave rise to multicellular life. By about 520 million years ago, during the Cambrian period, the great Cambrian Explosion (speciation-wise) resulted in a biosphere rich with marine and terrestrial species, both unicellular and multicellular. The Ordovician period which followed expanded the Cambrian Explosion into the greatest biodiversity the Earth had ever seen.

As of about 500 million years ago, however, the Earth experienced five major mass extinction events, briefly as follows:

1. The Ordovician-Silurian Extinction, 440-450 million years ago. 27% of all families and 57% of all genera went extinct.
2. The Devonian Extinction, 375 million years ago. 19% of all families and 50% of all genera went extinct.
3. The Permian-Triassic Extinction, 251 million years ago. 57% of all families and 83% of all genera went extinct.
4. The Triassic-Jurassic Extinction, 205 million years ago. 23% of all families and 48% of all genera went extinct.
5. The Cretaceous-Tertiary Extinction, 65 million years ago. 17% of all families and 50% of all genera went extinct.

Diagram 1 (see attachment)

Now, at the end of the Holocene Epoch, as we live and as we speak, we are in the depths and heights of the 6th Mass Extinction event of Earth, one which threatens the survival of likely over half of the current species, including our own. By “the end of the Holocene Epoch” is meant that a geologically brand new epoch has arisen about 200 years ago to take its place – the Anthropocene Epoch, the epoch of human causes. 200 years ago was about the beginning of Industrialization, the beginning of the end of hundreds of thousands of species over the next few decades, and likely millions of species over the next few centuries. Since the cause of this 6th Mass Extinction is human, a human solution is needed, which we might find by studying the natural processes involved in the mass extinctions of the past.

When we speak of mass extinction, we usually talk about the 5th and last event – the Cretaceous-Tertiary (K-T) Extinction, which wiped out the dinosaurs, known to be caused by a massive asteroid or meteoroid strike in what is now Mexico. Such an asteroid or meteoroid would have likely been some 10 km in diameter. It would have cast dust and particulates by the billions of tons into the atmosphere, forming a near opague layer that shielded the planet’s surface from solar radiation for months. Further, the impact showered the entire planet with glowing and burning embers, causing a global mother-of-all-firestorms, which in turn sent billions of tons of ash and soot into the atmosphere, thus intensifying the opacity of the dust layer, rendering the surface of the planet pitch black at midday. This halted photosynthesis in the plants, and precipitated starvation upon the animals, herbivores, omnivores and carnivores alike, terrestrial as well as marine.

But as we can see from the above, in terms of percentage decimation on the family and genus levels, it was the least of the Big Five, which goes to show how much more calamitous the other Big Four were.

Another things unique about the K-T Extinction is that it is the only one proven to be caused primarily by an asteroid strike. Primarily because there seemed to be a secondary cause – the massive basaltic flood from a huge crack on the Earth’s crust at present-day India’s Deccan Trap, which released huge amounts of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, leading to global warming after the brief “asteroid winter”. Fortunately, for the K-T, that is, Deccan Trap was not the biggest in Earth’s history by a long shot, so the global warming was not as severe. The other four were all primarily due to some form of climate change, and the biggest flood basalt event occurred during the 3rd – the Permian-Triassic Mass Extinction, the biggest ever.

The Permian-Triassic Extinction (#3) wiped out about 75% of terrestrial life and about 95% of marine life within a span of about 80,000 years. The following two diagrams contrast starkly the before and after.


Diagram 2 (see attachment)

After the Permian-Tertiary Extinction, the same sea floor looked like this:

Diagram 3 (see attachment)

The exact mechanism that reduced the bountiful former to the pitiable latter has still to be fully worked out, but the most probable theory is coherent and fairly consistent with observed data. The important thing here is that it is likely applicable in our quest for a solution to combat Mass Extinction #6:

1. There is some debatable evidence that a meteoroid or asteroid did impact the Earth shortly before or concurrent with the beginning of the extinction event, and the impact worked in about the same way as the K-T impact – “asteroid winter”, global cooling due to shielding of sunlight, followed by a global firestorm which sent megatons of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, causing global warming after the very brief global cooling. But this alone is not enough to precipitate the colossal losses.

2. Concurrently or nearly so, and perhaps due to the physical trauma of the impact, a crack in the crust many times the length of the one at K-T’s Deccan Trap opened up at the Siberia Trap in Western Russia, resulting in a flood basalt outflow in the order of a million cubic kilometers, covering hundreds of thousands of square kilometers to thicknesses a kilometer or more, all in many orders of magnitude larger than the Deccan trap equivalents. The extruded magma contained vast amounts of carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide, among other greenhouse gasses (GHGs), which are degassed into the atmosphere. This took global warming to a new height. But still, #1 and #2 combined could raise the global temperature by 4-5oC, enough to drive perhaps 30-40% of the species to extinction, but not the 70+% on land and the 95% in the ocean.

3. In the ground are vast deposits of the aforementioned “most danger stuff on Earth today, even more so than all the nukes combined” – methane. Methane is one of the most potent GHGs in existence, each molecule about 20 times as potent as a CO2 molecule. In the ground, these methane reservoirs took the form of solid methane clathrate (methane hydrate) deposits, which under high pressure is stable up to 18oC. Methane clathrate is present in permafrost on the ground as well as the rock layers in the ground. The massive molten flood basalt outflows in the Siberia Trap, which occurred repeatedly and at different locations over many millennia, destabilized many methane reservoirs and released huge quantities of the powerful GHG into the atmosphere, possibly doubling or even tripling the atmospheric GHG concentration. This drove the global temperature even higher, perhaps by up to 7-8oC. This could push the extinction rate up above 60-70%

4. With atmospheric warming comes hydrospheric warming. The characteristics of ocean warming is that it warms up much more near the poles than near the equator. This decreased the temperature gradient, and therefore slowed down or shut down some or all of the ocean currents. This led to stagnancy, thermal layering and anoxia (oxygen deprivation) of the deeper layers, which caused the proliferation of anaerobic bacteria which exhale copious amounts of CO2 and poisonous hydrogen sulphide, some of which being absorbed by the water, thus leading in part to oceanic acidification which, for one thing destroyed shell-forming organisms including snails, bivalves and corals, and some released into the atmosphere, thus intensifying global warming even more.

5. Methane clathrate also existed in huge deposits on and under continental shelves deeper than about 100 meters. With ocean warming, some of the methane could be released. More methane released into the atmosphere means higher temperatures, and higher temperatures released more methane. This constituted a positive feedback loop spiraling into a runaway greenhouse effect leading to global temperature of 10+oC. This finally administered the coup de grace.

There is convincing evidence that methane did play a significant part in the calamity. The evidence is in the presence of a rock layer at the Permian-Triassic boundary with an unmistakably reduced C13/C12 ratio. The lighter carbon isotope C12 is much more prevalent in methane than in carbon dioxide. More C12 in the sediment means more methane in the mix. As it did happen, the 80,000 years or so it took for the Permian Triassic mass extinction to run its course, it comprised three phases, the first corresponding to #1 above, the second to #2 and #3, and the third to #4 and #5.

This made the early Triassic almost a lifeless wasteland, and whatever ecosystems remaining was so simple a kindergartener could grasp it. It took quite a few million years for the Triassic to get back to par to hand the baton to the Jurassic. Unfortunately, the Triassic/Jurassic boundary was marred by yet another mass extinction, and that was Mass Extinction #4, also due to climate change.

Now, we must deal with Mass Extinction #6.

3. The Future

In spite of the lack of an asteroid impact and any flood basalt eruption, Mass Extinction #6 is not far different from Mass Extinction #3. Just replace the asteroid and the flood basalt eruption with two words: “Human cause”. Neither do we need the flood basalt eruption to release the methane from the permafrost. Currently, the permafrost of the Arctic and sub-Arctic tundra holds up to 400 gigatons of CO2-equivalent in methane. That of Antarctica is uncertain.

And the permafrost is melting. Its total meltdown seems all but inevitable.

The current CO2 total in the atmosphere is about 700 gigatons (Gtons - billion tons), or about 370 ppm (parts per million). If 350 Gtons-C of methane is released into the atmosphere from the permafrost, it would increase the amount of CO2-equivalanet by 50% to 1,050 Gtons C, and the density increased to 550 ppm. The general consensus is to try to stabilize the density below 400 ppm. And this does not even take into account the methane stored in clathrate form on continental shelves under the sea.

The best estimate we have today suggests the global inventory of between 1×1015 and 5×1015 m³ (1 quadrillion to 5 quadrillion cubic meters), which corresponds to 500-2500 gigatons carbon. Even if just the low end of 500 Gtons-C is released into the atmosphere, it would add up to 1,550 Gtons-C or more than twice today’s amount, with the corresponding density of 820 ppm, which is as good as a death sentence for life on Earth. There is no point to talk about any larger releases.

And we haven’t even bothered to factor in the 7 Gtons-C of GHGs we’re pumping into the atmosphere by artificial means every year at today’s rate, and increasing.

Quite simply, if we value the wildlife of this planet, if we prize the integrity of the biosphere, if we love our children, if we want to survive, we simply cannot allow this to happen.

There is no cure to the problem once it has occurred, or even started to occur. There is only prevention. And we are running out of time, if we are lucky. If not, we already have.

Even today, at 370 ppm carbon the atmosphere, we are losing species at the rate of about 150-300 species per day, or 50,000-100,000 species a year, or 500,000-1,000,000 species a decade, or 5 million to 10 million species extinct by 2100, out of a total of about 20 million species, or a 50% loss.

At this point, recall the Permian-Triassic Mass Extinction, where 75% of terrestrial species and 95% of marine species went extinct, and remind ourselves that not only is it possible, it has happened, and it can happen again.

To just barely survive, we have no choice but to do all of the following without delay. Each day’s delay will mean several thousand more species extinct by 2100. Can we live with this kind of blood on our hands?

4. What is the solution?

First and foremost, we must realize that the use of fossil fuels must be phased out as soon as physically feasible. We must develop the wisdom to know that not all extractable fossil fuels can be burned, and the self-restraint to leave those that cannot be burned unburned.

For whatever quantity of fossil fuels that still can be burned, we must strictly prioritize their use according to the following order of worthiness:

  1. The highest priority for the use of the fossil fuels is for building alternative technologies and industries to ultimately replace itself, and for educational purposes in regards to global warming and its consequences.
  2. The second highest priority for the use of the fossil fuels is for the production and transportation of necessary goods and services.
  3. The third highest priority for the use of fossil fuels is for the production and transportation of unnecessary but preferred good and services.
  4. The fourth highest priority for the use of fossil fuels is for the production and transportation of trivial and luxury goods and services, including gas-guzzlers, yachts, monster houses (MacMansions), tourism, disposable anything,…
  5. The lowest priority: the annual Christmas shopping craze and consumer orgy must go!

The quick answer – Conservation and Technology

Conservation can be summed up in two words: CARBON TAX. This will drive fuel prices sky high, and that is good. It will also cause an economic recession, and that is good too, other than necessary. Put plainly, tighten your belt now, or starve later.

Want more details? Much exist in the Stern Commission report titled “The Economics of Global Climate Change”, in the Stern Review.

Renowned economist Sir Nicholas Stern is a former head of the World Bank and chief economist for the UK government. His review of climate change is among the best and most succinct in the world.

Here are his suggestions in a nutshell:

  1. Give priority to the precautionary principle
  2. Internalize environmental costs – to make the polluter pay, by pricing the costs of carbon, first by carbon taxing, then by regulation (an enforceable cap on emissions, fuel and efficiency standards etc.), and least of all, Carbon trading
  3. Minimize future discounting (better still, zero future discounting)
  4. Increase funding for research, development and deployment for non-combustion alternative energy technologies (solar, wind, tidal, hydro-electric, geothermal, nuclear) and carbon sinking and sequestration technologies – by orders of magnitude
  5. Remove barriers to energy efficiency
  6. Inform, educate and persuade the public to respond to climate change (this is where the kids can have their best impact!)
  7. Reduce deforestion
  8. Provide best available technology and funding to assist developing nations to industrialize using clean, renewable energy. The one big emitter that Stern, as well as Al Gore, failed to mention, let alone emphasize, is meat ptoduction – 22% of GHG emission more than transportation! Don’t forget: A meat-eater riding a bicycle produces more GHGs than a vegan driving a Hummer!
  9. Tax meat!

Things NOT to do:

  • Continue funding and subsidizing fossil fuel industries for any reason
  • Buy fuel inefficient good, including gas-guzzlers
  • Rely only on carbon trading
  • Rely on voluntary measures
  • Biofuels

To put this in a language everyone can understand, Auschwitz killed over 10,000 prisoners everyday. Every day the Allies delayed in liberating them means another 10,000 lives added to the grand total of the Holocaust. Again, every day we delay in acting now means another 10,000-100,000 species added to the grand total of the Holocene Extinction.

10. Act wisely, immediately or sooner!

Anthony Marr, founder and president
Heal Our Planet Earth (HOPE)

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