The work is going well, but it looks like it might be the end of the world.
A few nights ago, we were sitting on the deck watching the bats zoom around hunting for bugs. It was quite a little spectacle, only marred by my fear that we might not see them again next year. White nose syndrome, a fungal disease, has killed 98% of my state’s bat population. The fungus was accidentally “imported” to the United States only a few short years ago, but it has dramatically decimated the bat population all over the northeastern U.S. It is just one of the examples used in Elizabeth Kolbert’s sobering account of people’s impact on the environment. In geologic time, words like “recent” or “quick” often mean thousands of years. But when these words are applied to our future, “soon” really means “soon,” and that’s frightening. Need proof? Here are some examples:
- Ocean acidification, “global warming’s evil twin,” is caused by water’s increased intake of CO2 and has played a role in 2 of the last 5 mass extinctions. The ocean’s ideal pH level is 8.2. At pH 7.8, the ocean as an ecosystem will collapse. With people’s current CO2 emission levels, this level is expected to be reached by 2100.
- It is likely that reefs will be the first major ecosystem to become ecologically extinct. Reefs are extremely sensitive to both ocean temperature and saturation rate, which measures the amount of dissolved CO2 in the water. If current trends continue, by 2050, a visitor to the Great Barrier Reef might only find almost lifeless rubble banks.
- In Peru’s Manú National Park, one of the biodiversity “hot spots,” there are 1,035 tree species that we currently know of. Each one is highly specialized and grows only under very particular conditions. But migration rates of trees are already measurable—meaning some trees are dispersing their seeds to grow in areas that were inhospitable for them until not too long ago.
- During any given 24-hour period, it is estimated that 10,000 different species are being moved around the world by ships alone. By transporting species to parts of the world they are not native to, we are reassembling the world into one enormous supercontinent—the opposite of what happened to the world’s flora and fauna because of continental drift. Today, nearly a third of all plant species in Massachusetts are “naturalized newcomers.” California is acquiring a new invasive species every 60 days. As an overall result, local diversity might have increased, but global diversity has dropped as less adaptive species die out.
- “We live in a zoologically impoverished world, from which all the hugest, fiercest, and strangest forms have recently disappeared.” Lots of jumbo-sized animals, like the diprotodon, mastodon, moa, giant ground sloth, and mammoth, have become extinct shortly after coming in contact with homo sapiens. While there is no proof beyond doubt (yet) that mankind is responsible for their extinction, it is notable that it has happened in lots of places all over the world. And it is in the process of happening now; just look at the dwindling numbers of great apes, great cats, elephants, rhinos, etc.
If you’d like to read an excellent book about the havoc we, as a species, are wreaking on this planet, this is the book for you! Unlike at any other time in the history of Earth, a species might be responsible for its own demise. Frankly, at the risk of sounding anti-social, looking at the damage we’ve already done, it would serve us right.