Were all going to die; and as grim as that sounds, all of our living species are going to more than die, they are going to go extinct. In the very long run that is a simple fact, but many species are going extinct TODAY, and our species is the one killing them. We Homo sapiens as a group have a hundred-thousand-year history of driving other species into oblivion. Whenever we come into a new habitat things happen fast, very fast in the geological sense, and that geological record has consistently revealed in the fossil record that we are the perpetrators of extinctions.
It’s been sixty-six million years since an asteroid struck Chicxulub, Mexico, and brought the age of the dinosaurs to an abrupt end. That is called the fifth extinction. That event made a temporary ecological space for the survivors to expand into, and some of the rat-size mammals were our ancestors. The five major extinction events in Earth’s four plus billion year history, since life permanently established itself, were all caused by mega geological events. This sixth extinction now in progress is being caused by those cute little rats grown up into us. We are a super successful one-time-use fossil-fuel-based species that is unsustainable. We currently have a population a hundred times greater than that of the early Roman agriculture period, that was permanently sustainable.
The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert takes us visiting some of the scientists working in remote places in the world who are documenting the progress of this sixth extinction. One of these visits was to One Tree Island where researchers are monitoring the death of the world’s greatest reef system. You can see their camp in the Google Earth photo below.
Kolbert travels to many places where research is being conducted. There are only twenty species of trees in all of the huge country of Canada, but in the tiny tropical country of Belize there are over seven hundred species of trees. The tropics are way more diverse than the temperate areas and the arctic regions. With climate change it will be the tropics where the greatest species extinction will take place, but at the moment it is the polar bears that get the news coverage. Cute furry things that are easily viewed always get people’s attention, but it’s the nearly invisible biota in the thick tropical forests that are in the process of going extinct. That is because the tropics have few extremes of temperature and over geological time species tend to fill ever narrower niches, thus with what seems to us to be a minor change, those tropically adapted species are stressed beyond their ability to cope.
The impressive thing about humanity creating this world-wide sixth extinction is that, “we are doing it without even trying.”