Has mankind really driven the planet to the edge of a catastrophic crash of life? Is greed blinding us to what is right in front of our faces? Some would say maybe these claims are a little too reactionary. Okay, so a bit of Florida gets wet, and maybe some people will have to move inland. Can’t science just come up with new technologies to solve the dilemmas we face? Does industry just need to develop a practical and economical electric car? What would happen if we just did “business as usual”? The claims of doom are a bit extreme and, if we accept them at face value, they are really inconvenient to living our lives. What is science telling us about what is happening right now, what we face in the very near future, and what can be done to avoid it?
Earth really is exceptional. From our naturalist point of view, this planet’s life is unimaginably beautiful and breath-takingly diverse. But it doesn’t take a genius to see that Earth’s abundance and diversity is disappearing. There is a point at which this decline becomes mass extinction, and that point is much closer than you may think. Our own survival is indeed inextricably tied to the health of our world. If we expect science to save us, then we need to listen to what science is telling us. A brief yet preliminary look at our origins will help. First let’s cover some basics.
So often when discussing the age of Earth, mankind, and the universe, the numbers are not really appreciated, because it’s hard to understand their magnitude. The “billion” number gets casually thrown around and it’s heard so often nowadays that we forget how big this number is. Since a billion is used here, as a starting point, let’s clarify it this way: If we counted to a billion at one number per second – 1,2,3,4… up to a billion, it would take us more than 31 years, 8 months, and 12 days to get there. Here in September of 2017, you would have had to have begun counting at the beginning of 1986 to reach a billion by now. Even one billion is a really big number. With this in mind, here is what science tells us about the age of mankind, Earth, and the universe around us.
Age, Time, Earth, and Mankind – Who are we?
Modern man or Homo sapiens (Latin: “wise man”) is somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 years old. For our purposes here, let’s just assume mankind is 200,000 years old. The universe is currently thought to be about 13.8 billion years old and Earth roughly 4.5 billion years old. So, putting this in perspective: let’s visualize the age of the universe on a 24-hour clock. If we stuff those 13.8 billion years onto this 24-hour clock, the age of Homo sapiens is 1.25 seconds. Or if we put Earth’s 4.5-billion-year age onto a 24-hour clock, mankind is now a whopping 3.8 seconds old.
Relative to the age of our planet and the universe, our species has been around for a mere eye-blink of time. The first cave drawings were done about 40 thousand years ago, in the last one fifth of our history. Humans are extremely new relative to the world around us. Multiple mass extinctions and blossoming of life forms preceded our own appearance on Earth. Our population and history will be discussed later in this article. For now, it is only important to note how recently our species appeared. In terms of geologic time or even the age of mankind, current events are happening at lightning speed.
To start, we need to dispel the notions of those who have watched too much Star Trek, and take a brief look at physics. Before examining current research on climate change, pollution, species extinction, etc., let’s dismiss the question of leaving Earth.
Could we move?
The notion is unthinkable: that if we destroy Earth maybe we could just leave. This thought is rife with ethical absurdities. And beyond that, physics just does not support the idea in any way beyond very imaginative science fiction movies. No, we are not going to indulge bending space time, worm holes, warp speed, or any other concepts that do not exist in the real world of current science (sorry Michio Kaku). Given what stars are around us, how far away they are, and the numbers involved in traveling there, even getting a probe to a nearby star is very, very far in the distant future. Let’s take a simple yet realistic look at those numbers to clarify this point.
How far are the local stars and planets?
Traditionally, distances are so great in space that they are measured by the time it takes light to travel there. Let’s put space travel and light speed in perspective. Light travels at 186,000 miles a second or about 670 million miles an hour. Light leaving the Earth passes the moon in 1.28 seconds. It passes the sun in 8.3 minutes, and passes the outermost planet in the solar system, Neptune, in about four hours. The closest neighboring star system is Alpha Centauri. It has three stars. The smallest and closest of the three stars is Proxima Centauri. The beam of light that left Earth and passed Neptune in 4 hours won’t reach our closest neighbor star for 4.24 years.
Proxima Centauri is a red dwarf star that is much smaller than the sun. It even has a planet that is the right distance from it to have liquid water. However, the star is also a flare star, (it flares up with radiation bursts) making the planet very inhospitable to humans. Currently, there are no other sun-like stars with Earth-like planets known to science. Just for the point of discussion, here are some numbers for sending a “Mars rover” type probe to Proxima Centauri. We note that Mars is about 3 light minutes away, at its closest. It took almost 9 months (253 days) of flight time to get the rover to Mars using our current technology.
A trip to Proxima Centauri
Let’s consider the logistics of sending a Mars rover-type expedition to Proxima Centauri. The math alone tells us just how unrealistic this notion is. To reach such a distant destination in a reasonable amount of time, the rover would need to travel close to the speed of light. Let’s pick 92% the speed of light (0.92c) for energy considerations, noting that we currently lack the technology to accelerate the probe even close to this speed.
Accelerating the rover to 0.92c at one G (Earth’s gravity) would take around 0.89 years, during which time the rover will have traveled 0.41 light years in distance. At this point, the rover could coast at 92% light speed until it needed to decelerate back down to zero velocity to land on the planet near Proxima Centauri. Just to reach our nearest neighbor star, 5.5 years would go by.
4.24 Light years
Since Proxima Centauri is 4.24 light years from us, receiving news of the rover’s arrival, by radio signal at light speed, would take another 4.24 years. We wouldn’t even know that it got there until 9.74 years after its departure. Not to mention the amount of time it would take to gather meaningful information about its planet(s). (calculations)
Though the trip doesn’t take an enormous amount of time, what really makes it unrealistic is the amount of energy it would take. All of the energy is expended during the acceleration and deceleration processes. This amounts to 288 billion times as much energy as it would take to get the rover from Earth’s surface to an altitude of 100 kilometers (into outer space). This also does not take into account the weight of any fuel or rocket. The Mars rover weighed only a ton, or about as much as 14 average-sized humans (even fewer if we’re talking about Americans). Even getting a Mars rover to Proxima Centauri is an absurd concept (735 million times the distance to Mars). The notion of transporting humans to a safe haven planet is completely untenable. Thus, we need to focus on preserving Earth while we still can.
The Troubles at Home are Happening Fast
In every area of our planetary sciences that we examine, we see a consistent thread. The oceans, land, and air are all polluted. There are massive declines in the number of species, and in the numbers of individuals within species. There are huge losses of natural habitats. Each of the last three years has broken the record for highest average annual temperature on record. Human overpopulation is skyrocketing. This is no “leftist” movement, nor is this a political statement. These are observations and objective facts. The decline of our planet can be seen right in front of our eyes, if we just open them.
Biodiversity is diminishing at an accelerating rate. This is unprecedented in Earth’s history, except during other mass extinction events, such as after catastrophic meteor impacts. Another defining factor is that the decline is happening everywhere all at once. None of us want to hear this, but that’s what the science is telling us.
The concept of climate change faces strong opposition led by some of the most “influential billionaires” denying its importance, irregularity, or even its existence. This group is supported by a mass of technocrats who think any problem can be fixed with a swish of technical repair, despite the fact that the science behind that is utterly lacking. Well, for most of us “muggles“ it isn’t quite that simple. The buildup of carbon-based pollutants in the atmosphere is causing long-term increases in our global temperatures.
Even if we could just halt air pollution entirely, it would only result in a slower rate of temperate increase. 2016 was the hottest year ever recorded since global temperatures have been tracked, and it followed 2015 and 2014, each of which were record years before it.
A 2,500-square mile (the size of Delaware), 640-foot-thick, trillion-ton (that’s 1000 billion!) chunk of ice broke off the Larsen C ice shelf in Antarctica in July of 2017, making it one of the largest icebergs ever recorded. This followed similar collapses that occurred in nearby ice shelves in 1995 and 2002. The upcoming Antarctica summer months may bring even more of these massive ice shelf breakups. Glaciers are shrinking at ever increasing rates all over the planet.
Research from NASA
NASA satellites give us the ability to view climate change on a planetary scale like never before in human history. Global temperatures and sea level rise are data readily available to science now. This allows us to analyze and record data not previously available. NASA published that “There is no question that increased levels of greenhouse gases must cause the Earth to warm in response.”
Ancient Atmospheric Composition
Long-term atmospheric compositions can be measured by looking at the trapped air in ice cores. Unprecedented levels of greenhouse gasses have been found in recent layers of the ice cores drawn from Greenland and Antarctica.
Multiple methods allow scientists to determine the age of the ice along the length (depth taken) of the core. This data shows that carbon dioxide levels after 1950 exceed the highest recorded levels in the last 450,000 years.
The National Research Council writes “…current warming is occurring roughly ten times faster than the average rate of ice-age-recovery warming”. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states, “Scientific evidence for warming of the climate system is unequivocal.” The IPCC determined that the current warming is “the result of human activity since the mid-20th century and proceeding at a rate that is unprecedented over decades to millennia.”
Climate Science Special Report
On June 28th, 2017, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the American Meteorological Society (AMS) released their annual summary of the global climate. Based on scientist’s contributions from around the world, the 673-page report is a compilation of data collected in environmental monitoring stations along with instruments located on land, water, ice, and in space. Among their findings was: “Many lines of evidence demonstrate that human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse gases, are primarily responsible for observed climate changes…”.
The report reads: “There are no alternative explanations, and no natural cycles are found in the observational record that can explain the observed changes in climate.” The global average sea level was the highest on record, 3.25 inches above 1993, when satellite records began. It continues with “Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere averaged 402.9 parts per million, which scientists believe to be the highest in about 800,000 years and the biggest jump in the 58 years it has been recorded.”
Greed and ignorance are the opponents denying climate change. Let’s be clear that there is a significant amount of money going into attempting to disprove climate change. The burning of fossil fuels supports our society and industry. Unfortunately, the evidence and research on climate change is rock solid and it is clear that mankind is the culprit.
So, we are back to our opening paragraph. How bad is this? How alarmed should we be? What does this really mean to most of our lives?
The outcomes of our world warming are really beyond what most people can imagine. The World Health Organization’s (WHO) director general, Margaret Chan, says “Climate change is the defining issue for public health in the 21st century”. No country is immune. “The [health effects of climate change] are right before our eyes, well-known, measurable, scientifically documented, and daunting.”
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is not quite as positive about the effects of climate change. The NRDC publishes “As temperatures spike, so does the incidence of illness, emergency room visits, and death.” Their published research outlines: increased severity of Atlantic hurricanes, compounded allergy and asthma suffrage to 23 million children and adults, increased death and illness related to greater frequency and severity of heat waves, heat holding down pollutants increasing respiratory Illnesses, and rapid development of dangerous pathogens within insect carriers to mention but a few problems. The most heat-vulnerable older Americans will rise from today’s 40 million over 65 years of age to 86 million in 2050.
Hurricane Harvey hitting the coast of Texas during August of 2017, set a record as the largest rainfall event in US history. Hurricane Irma, right behind this, hitting Florida in September ranked among the most powerful Atlantic hurricanes ever recorded. It is of interest and probably not coincidence that these would match a global warming climate model predicting more extreme weather events. The cost in lives and to our society will take years to become fully clear.
The shame is that it is not just climate change. We are faced with a wave of manmade dilemmas making themselves clear including a stunning loss of biodiversity. The consequences of us doing nothing are horrific.
Earth’s 6th Mass Extinction
A study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) reports that 40% of the Earth’s species have experienced severe population declines (>80% range shrinkage). They attribute their findings largely to pollution, habitat loss, climate change, and over-harvesting. “Earth is experiencing a huge episode of population declines and extirpations, which will have negative cascading consequences on ecosystem functioning and services vital to sustaining civilization.” That’s us.
The study asserts that the loss of biological diversity is one of the most severe human-caused global environmental problems. Conservatively, almost 200 species of vertebrates have gone extinct in the last 100 years. In the “normal” extinction rate prevailing over the last 2 million years, those vertebrate species would have taken not a century, but up to 10,000 years to disappear.
Major declines in prominent animal species are being recorded in very short periods of time (e.g. African lion (Panthera leo) dropped 43% since 1993 and giraffes dropped from around 115,000 individuals in 1985, to around 97,000). The list is staggering. The NAS study says, “Hundreds of species and myriad populations are being driven to extinction every year.” The most recent Living Planet Index has estimated that wildlife abundance decreased by as much as 58% between 1970 and 2012. These statistics indicate extreme degradation to the life on Earth based on modern comparative research.
The PNAS Study
The PNAS study paints a realistic world picture showing that as much as 50% of the animal individuals that once shared Earth with us are already gone, as are “billions of area populations”. It further expands its analysis to include similar losses of plants, insect populations, and subsequent intricate ecological networks along with their accompanying microorganisms. “Animals with backbones, like fish, birds, mammals, amphibians, and reptiles – are disappearing 114 times faster than they should be.” Their assumptions that “Humanity will eventually pay a very high price for the decimation of the only assemblage of life that we know of in the universe” should be of primary concern to us all.
The report summarizes and warns in conclusion: “Thus, we emphasize that the sixth mass extinction is already here and the window for effective action is very short, probably two or three decades at most. All signs point to ever more powerful assaults on biodiversity in the next two decades, painting a dismal picture of the future of life, including human life.”
Loss of Pollinators
Although that which is mostly addressed in this article is the disappearance of the animal life, Earth’s extinction event stretches across the entire biota. This immediately and directly affects mankind such as in case of the pollinators. In February of 2017 the Center for Biological Diversity cites that “The most comprehensive global report thus far on the status of pollinators found that more than 40 percent of them, mostly bees, are facing extinction.” This extends then to plant life of which 90% are dependent on insect pollinators. The causes of this are directly attributed to habitat loss, pesticide use, and global temperature changes. This, then, directly threatens our food supply.
The Center for Biological Diversity’s Kelsey Kopec, author of the 2017 study on North American and Hawaiian Bees, states that “If we don’t act to save these remarkable creatures, our world will be a less colorful and more lonesome place.”
Our news quietly reports a number of major animal species that are either hanging on by a thread or that have such low populations that they are on the way out. The three Northern White Rhinos left on Earth will go extinct, and the Hainan Gibbon that used to roam half of China struggles to avoid extinction. There may be about a dozen gibbons left on one island off China’s coast. They don’t reproduce in captivity and females have only one offspring every two years. The list goes on and we can only mention a fraction of them here.
Pressures on rare animal life caused by senseless human destructions are far-ranging. They include uses in pseudo-medicines, illegal fishing practices, trophy hunting, animal captures for the pet industry, and the fur trade to mention just a few. The temptations in poor countries to make a quick profit are hard or impossible to control.
Stories like that of the rare, endemic Vaquita in the Gulf of California are heart wrenching. The Vaquita is a small, 95-lb. porpoise that lives in the north of the Gulf of California. The gulf was once a haven of incredibly abundant marine life. Commercial fishing ravaged the abundance of highly prized and marketable sea foods. Greed and corruption in the government and the lack of enforceable regulations decimated the historical incredible abundance in the gulf. Endemic species like the Vaquita were defenseless against man’s greed.
Illegal gill nets, set up to catch fish, snare Vaquitas. Being oxygen breathing mammals the small porpoises drown in the nets. Exacerbating the problem, the air bladder is prized as a Chinese delicacy with supposed medicinal value fetching up to $20,000 apiece.
The Vaquita has been relentlessly hunted. This beautiful porpoise may have actually gone extinct this year. Some estimates of a potential 30 animals left in existence give hope for a captive breeding program. Their value caused local fishermen to compete with conservationists to find any remaining individuals though. The uncertainty of a captive breeding program, starting with finding enough individuals to maintain genetic diversity, spells another White Rhino story.
In September of 2014 we posted an article on the plight of the American Pika – unmercifully cute alpine furballs here in our blog. Much to our dismay, August 31, 2017 PLOS released research studies detailing the largest area of American Pika extinction yet reported for the modern era.
The five-year study from 2011-2016 focused on the American Pika populations of the Sierra Nevada Mountains west of Lake Tahoe. In their 14 survey sites west of Lake Tahoe, combined with an additional 24 sites to the north, the American Pika had been completely extirpated. The study focused on “an unprecedentedly large (165 km2) region within a broad contiguous area of its distribution in the Sierra Nevada.”
The study, utilizing known weather data from 1910-2016, concluded “the time-frame of shrinking of pika distribution as a result of warming temperatures is likely to be on the scale of decades, not centuries.”
Oceans Pollution and Threats to Marine Life
The Oceans are much trickier to access than the land and air. Although fundamental changes can be seen, it is still much harder to measure the decline of marine life. Obvious changes in acidification, increasing temperatures, reduced food availability, and the plummet of life in shallow water like the world’s reef systems, are evident.
Deeper water extinction events, declines in plankton (half of our world’s oxygen is produced by phytoplankton in the oceans), or sea floor health is much more difficult to evaluate. Yet we do know that bottom trawlers scraping large nets across the sea floor have already affected 20 million square miles of ocean, turning parts of the continental shelf to rubble. Coral reefs have declined by 40 percent worldwide.
Ocean pollution has become so extreme that it could jeopardize our life on land. By weight, plastic waste alone is projected to exceed that of the fish by 2050. The leakage of plastics into the ocean from land is projected to only get worse if we don’t setup a whole recycling industry and economy for it.
World Economic Forum
The World Economic Forum (WEF) reports that “only 14% of plastic packaging is collected for recycling. When additional value losses in sorting and reprocessing are factored in, only 5% of material value is retained for a subsequent use.”
The WEF report continues, “Each year, at least 8 million tons of plastics leak into the ocean.” Plastics intended useful life is typically less than one year; however, the material persists for centuries. New plastics will consume 20% of all oil production within 35 years, up from an estimated 5% today. The production of plastics further increases our carbon footprint.
The marine biosphere may not yet have seen the extinction rates that the land based biosphere has, but the oceans are in trouble. Mankind has severely affected the oceans as well as the land. We just do not have the data to significantly determine extinction rates except with a few large animals.
Declines of once common larger fish like the sawfish, of which all six species are now either endangered or critically endangered, are being recorded. Beyond the basics, how many species and groups of species have gone extinct is difficult to assess. Even accurate population estimates are problematic.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports that ocean warming dominates the increase in energy stored in the climate system, accounting for more than 90% of the energy accumulated between 1971 and 2010, with only about 1% stored in the atmosphere. Larger fish can move to cooler waters as temperatures rise but this is not possible for the smaller base of the ecosystem.
Increases in ocean acidity are particularly damaging to creatures with calcium carbonate shells or skeletons, including mollusks, crustaceans, and corals.
Learning from the past
In the early 1800’s, whaling in the Galapagos drove not only the Sperm Whale but also several species of turtles to the brink of extinction. To the people of the time, the oceans were limitless. The life was there to exploit until a better hunting ground was found. These people had no idea that species could be exterminated, nor did they understand the value of diversity. Even today it is hard to justify the mentality of slaughtering 50-75 million buffalos to near extinction in the late nineteenth century.
In this modern era, we do know that we can destroy species. We have the information to know when we are doing it, and understand at least some of the potential consequences. History will not forgive us for knowingly destroying our planet’s precious life.
There has been an exponential growth in our human population in the last hundred years. Advances in medicine, increases in life expectancy, and high birth rates have been large factors in the historical growth. In the last hundred years, our population has gone from less than 2 billion to over 7.5 billion, a 4-fold increase. The population is expected to reach 9.6 billion by 2050.
Although the population growth is leveling in developed countries it will remain high in many underdeveloped regions. China, which has the highest current population in the world, is expected to decline by almost 40% by the end of the century. India’s population is expected to continue to grow throughout the century, almost doubling China’s by the end of the century. Nigeria will have the greatest growth in numbers by the turn of the century. It is expected to have about a 600 million increase in population. No country will be immune to the effects of the total world human population growth.
Population in underdeveloped countries account for Ninety-seven percent of the projected population growth. The US is the only developed nation expected to add significantly to its population (Population Reference Bureau’s 2011 World Population Data Sheet). Japan, Germany, and Russia are expected to reduce their populations. The declines of biodiversity, increases in temperatures, and pollution rates discussed above share a common thread correlated to human population growth. The suggestion of limiting growth has been met with fierce opposition. A conscious effort by the people to minimize population would certainly be reasonable.
According to the PNAS analysis, the major declines in Earth’s biodiversity stems from population growth. “Much less frequently mentioned are, however, the ultimate drivers of those immediate causes of biotic destruction, namely, human overpopulation and continued population growth, and overconsumption.”
What can we do?
Like all dilemmas we face, we the people need to be aware of the potential dangers ahead. Get involved in groups and organizations that are conscious of, promote, and improve our environment. Some of these are in the text above. Get outdoors, join an Audubon group, etc. See your world, get interested.
With computers, cell phones and the internet at our fingertips, we have largely forgotten the outdoors. It is not something we can forget. Our lives, future, and health are tied to Earth and there is no possibility anytime soon of getting anywhere else. The devastation to our planet’s biodiversity is in full swing.
Encourage your legislators to improve our home. This is such a fantastic world, we all need to care for and appreciate it. The life on Earth, all life, is irreplaceable. Once we destroy life, it is gone and it won’t come back. We are not only gambling with leaving a desert behind us, we are gambling with destroying mankind. The changes are now happening fast and are visible if we look. This is not a problem somewhere out in the future. It is here right now.
Damage to our home can be mitigated if we act now. An improved future for us and our children needs to be set in motion. We are, indeed, amid a devastating crash of life on our planet. Will greed blind us to what is right in front of our faces?
Special thanks to the staff members at Optics4Birding for their input, contributions, and review. These contributors include: Peter Young, Bruce Aird, and Steve Sosensky