The Fragility of Life – Extinctions

The Four Horsemen have rampaged Earth all too many times.  The four horsemen of the Apocalypse, from the Bible’s Book of Revelation. The four beings that ride white (Conquest), red (War), black (Famine) and pale (Death) horses. Remember Clint Eastwood’s Preacher, on the Pale Horse in the film Pale Rider, who symbolized death? Terrific film.

Mother Earth is not a benign planet.  Life forms have come and gone. Already, there have been five mass extinctions over the millenia, all of which have been the result of natural causes. We’re now engaged in a sixth extinction, which appears to be caused primarily by human activity.

I have summarized information about the extinctions from the World Atlas:

Number One was the Ordovician-Silurian Extinction, 439 million years ago, 86% of life was wiped out including the beloved trilobites. I keep a fossilized trilobite on one of my bookshelves.

Number Two was the Late Devonian Extinction, 364 million years ago, 75% of life was wiped out. There are multiple suppositions as to the cause.

Number Three was the Permian-Triassic Extinction. The Big One. It occured approximately 250 million years ago. Approximately 96% of life was wiped out. It was caused by a chain reaction: massive volcanic eruptions emitted massive amounts of carbon dioxide, the carbon dioxide fed the single-cell organisms that excreted large amounts of methane, creating a greenhouse effect causing Mother Earth to warm. All life today has evolved from survivors from this extinction. A question that raises grave concern is “What are the consequences of a release of large amounts of methane stored in the frozen northern tundra and seabeds?” Methane has a far more powerful greenhouse effect than carbon dioxide. If suddenly released in massive quantities, human civilization would take a major step backward as temperatures that are non-sustainable for human habitation would likely occur.

Number Four was the Triassic-Jurassic Extinction, between 199 million and 214 million years ago. This extinction opened the pathway for the roughly 150 million year reign of the dinosaurs, as well as the twentieth century’s subsequent fixation with the cinematic mutant ones.

Number Five was the Cretaceous-Paleogene Extinction, 65 million years ago which ended the rule of the dinosaurs. 76% of life was wiped out during this extinction, including the larger dinosaurs.

Number Six. The current sixth extinction is occuring during the Anthropocene. It is different from the first five extinctions as it seems to be entirely man-made. Climate anomalies are being caused by human generated greenhouse gas emissions, use of pesticides and other environmental poisons, deforestation around the world for industrial uses, etc. The Anthropocene is our world, the Age of Man. Extinction period, current – TBD. Mass casualties, TBD.

A PBS program on Extinctions recently reported that ninety-nine percent (99.9%) of all species that have ever inhabited our planet have gone extinct.  99.9%! The program ends with this tidbit with respect to the Anthropocene: “The evidence all points to a global tragedy with a profound loss of biodiversity.” How about this quote from a PBS News Hour Report: “We are seeing the things we said would be happening, happen now in real life,” said report co-author Katharine Hayhoe of Texas Tech University. “As a climate scientist it is almost surreal.”

An article in EcoWatch, February 11th, discussed a recent survey conducted by scientists from the University of Sydney (Australia), the China Academy of Agricultural Sciences in Beijing, and the University of Queensland (Australia) published in Biological Conservation. They reviewed 73 reports measuring the decline in insect biodiversity. They reported that “more than 40 percent of the world’s insects could become extinct in the next few decades.” Insects are becoming extinct at a higher rate than birds, mammals and reptiles. Effectively, the report concludes that insects incur “a loss of 2.5% of insect mass every year.” Climate change is one of the four primary drivers of the loss. Pesticides, loss of habitat, and disease/competition with other species make up the remaining key drivers.

Try to imagine a world without honeybees and butterflies. If so, be sure to erase flowers and plants from your imagination. The reality is that our world would be starkly different. Remember, less vegetation = less photosynthesis = less atmospheric oxygen = more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere = warming temperatures = starkly different, less habitable environment.

Consider a study released in the fall of 2017 in Germany. The study identified a 76% decline in the total seasonal biomass of flying insects over the last 30 years. Their midsummer loss exceeded 80 percent. What’s the cause? No one knows. Have you noticed during summer trips that the amount of bug splatter on your car windows has declined? I have. During our last midsummer trip to Asheville, my wife and I noticed that there weren’t many bugs splattered against our windshield. When I was a kid, my father and I scraped them off our windshield at every gas station along the route.

An article from The Telegraph in the UK on August 26, 2017 confirmed the anecdotal commentary with respect to the reduction in bug splatter. It reported that a group in Germany had been monitoring insects at 100 nature reserves since the 1980’s. They discovered that by 2013 the numbers dropped by 80%. The good news is that the reduction is probably not climate change driven. Until we know what is causing the bug extinction, we shouldn’t be overly complacent. Something isn’t right.

This particular blog piece is about the fragility of life. How easily it could end in an unexpected natural (or unnatural) mass casualty event. As I was writing this blog entry, my mind wandered to ponder the likelihood of any human being actually existing. So, I googled it. Dr. Ali Binazir has actually crunched the numbers. The odds are 1 in 102,685,000. Statistically, it’s really unlikely that any individual should exist at all. When a man ejaculates he releases several hundred million sperm; but, only one of the little dudes is necessary to fertilize the egg. Each one of the sperm cells is genetically unique and each is racing towards the egg. One wins the race and conception occurs. What if there was a different winner that romantic night? Answer, not you.

If my father’s buddy on Guadalcanal hadn’t been my mother’s cousin, someone more eloquent might be writing a different blog, say, on dung beetles. Maybe bug extinction is due to changes in the climate, or pesticides, maybe to predators that haven’t been identified, maybe to infinitesimally small changes in the atmosphere pressure, maybe to gamma rays, etc. Who knows. Hopefully, the reasons will be determined before it is too late. At the end of the day, we should be thankful that we exist at all and live our lives in a manner that reflects and honors that. Is it likely that all insects will become extinct? No. Many will probably be survivors. Think cockroach. Imagine the cockroach as one of the final representatives of our planet.

The first time I went to graduate school it was to study molecular biology. That was in 1968 just in time to be drafted. While there, I read an essay by J.B.S. Haldane that contained a quote that has stuck with me ever since: “the universe is not only weirder than we suppose, but weirder than we can suppose.” I may have paraphrased slightly but the meaning would be the same. The existence of any creature, large or small, is totally unlikely. Our very existence begins as a game of chance played on a higher order than we can imagine. Many people use religion to explain it. Others don’t even bother trying. So much for philosophy on this late Monday night.

A terrific book that describes the sixth extinction is Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History.  In 2017, the Guardian newspaper in the UK ranked it the best nonfiction book of all time. Terrific book.

Throughout Earth’s history species have come and gone.  More are endangered and likely will become extinct because they will fail to adapt to the changing climate and environment.

For the last 4.543 billion years, Mother Earth has kept right on spinning around the Sun, impervious to anything and everything.  That will continue regardless of whether or not we choose to recognize the implications of the changing climate on life on earth. It really is a choice.  If we don’t, George Carlin pointed out eloquently that Earth will shake us off like a dog shakes off a flea.

Temperatures are rising globally.  There is no question of that.  The major news sites all carried the report that the last four years have been the warmest on record.  The global rise in temperature is primarily driven by our impact on the environment as we continue to burn fossil fuels like coal, petroleum, and natural gas.  The current level of PPM (carbon dioxide parts per million in the atmosphere) is 411.54, based on the Scripps Keeling Curve Website carbon dioxide measurement on February 8, 2019 at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii.

As such, we are in uncharted territory.  That is a level that has not been exceeded in the last 400,000 years.  Collectively, we can either get our act together or Mother Earth’s current level of hospitality may very well run its course and we will all become Carlin’s fleas.

If business as usual continues, the problems will get worse.  At some point we’ll reach a tipping point. It doesn’t matter to Mother Earth whether we keep our heads in the sand (or other tight, dark places) and become another notch in Mother Earth’s belt by joining the 99.9% of failed species or make the right decisions for current and future generations.  As Carlin pointed out, Mother Earth will keep right on spinning with complete indifference.  Carlin said it in his highlighted YouTube routine in the Carlin’s Fleas blog entry.  It makes no difference whatsoever to Mother Earth.  But it will to us and everything that could have been.

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