Are We Facing A New Wave Of Extinction?

Oct 1, 2015

Climate change and human activity may be leading to a new wave of extinction.

Vermont Edition spoke to Elizabeth Kolbert, staff writer for The New Yorker, about the her latest book, "The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History."

On historic mass extinctions

"The idea is that there have been these moments [that] are not spaced in any way for whatever reason, and the reasons vary, you get a very large number of species going extinct, in a geological sense, more or less at the same time," says Kolbert.

There have been five major mass extinctions in a half a billion years. In these "unusual" and "random" moments, extinction rates spike above the norm. This differs greatly from the normal background extinction rates, where so-called "tick tick species" come into being and go extinct slowly at a rate that is practically imperceptible during a human lifetime.

"The lesson from mass extinctions is that when conditions on earth change very dramatically, groups that have dominated the planet for a long time - like the dinosaurs, which were very long lived and a very successful group - suddenly can go extinct," says Kolbert.

On the sixth extinction

Kolbert's book discusses the reality of the impending sixth extinction. "This is very prevalent in the scientific literature right now, that we are either on the verge of, or even in the midst of, another mass extinction event," says Kolbert.

At this moment it is unclear whether or not the sixth extinction will have the same impact as the five prior mass extinction events. According to Kolbert, the extinction numbers are on the order of what you'd expect to see during a mass extinction.

"We have to hope very much for the sake for us and everything around us that it's not. But extinction rates are very high right now - that is not a disputed idea," says Kolbert. "It's just a fact."

"[Extinction] is not just attributable to climate change, it's attributable to the many ways that we are changing the earth on a geological scale," says Kolbert.

Kolbert mentions the varied human activity that is changing the world on a broad scale, including altering the surface of the earth by removing forests and planting monocultures. Another major change is being made in the basic chemistry of the ocean, with the acidification of seawater through increased levels of CO2.

On what this means for the future

"We inherited a world that was extremely diverse. A high-point, really, of diversity on the planet. And we're unraveling that very, very quickly," says Kolbert. "We're basically destroying diversity and variety, and many people would argue the beauty, of the world that we share with these fantastic creatures."

Beyond living without animals that are already extinct or destined to die out, Kolbert reminds us that humanity itself is at risk.

"At these moments of mass extinction, the rules change. The world changes. In our case, the world is changing because of our own actions," says Kolbert. "That changes the rules of the survival game. You don't know what groups are going to come out at the end of that."

"We're changing the world in a lot of different ways very, very fast and that's very difficult for species to keep up with," says Kolbert. She stresses that if humans were to take action, they would have to address not just one issue, but a variety of issues simultaneously. 

Elizabeth Kolbert will be giving a speech Oct. 2. at the Fairbanks Museum in St. Johnsbury on the topic of extinction.