But then Homo sapiens showed up, and the Neanderthals disappeared. So what happened?
For decades, modern human scientists assumed there must have been something wrong with the Neanderthals — or something right with us — that led to their extinction. Maybe H. neanderthalensis had bad genes that made the species more vulnerable to disease. Maybe the climate changed quickly and they couldn’t adapt. Maybe modern humans were smarter, more innovative, better at coming up with new ways to control territory and secure food. Acres of ancient archaeological sites have been excavated and libraries of academic journals filled by scientists seeking an explanation.
“It’s like everyone is searching for ‘just so’ stories about why one species led the other to extinction,” said Oren Kolodny, an evolutionary biologist at Stanford University. But Kolodny wondered: What if there is no “just so” explanation?
In a paper published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications, Kolodny and his colleague Marc Feldman test a more basic hypothesis — that the extinction of the Neanderthals was simply a consequence of population dynamics and bad timing. In most cases, it turned out, this was enough to account for the disappearance of our hominin cousins.
Neanderthals first emerged in Europe around 400,000 years ago. After evolving in Africa, anatomically modern humans arrived in Europe. There was a brief period of time, between about 51,000 and 39,000 years ago, when H. neanderthalensis and H. sapiens shared the landscape — maybe fighting, and definitelyinterbreeding. But at the end of that era only one species was left standing
Among museum scientists, there’s a tension between putting specimens on display to the public and making them available for research. For the Neanderthal skeleton at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, there’s a creative solution. (Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)
The speed of replacement led scientists to assume that modern humans had some selective advantage — a trait that made them and their offspring more evolutionarily successful than their cousins. Initially, Kolodny was interested in calculating the size of that advantage. To do so, he had to establish what’s known as the “null hypothesis.”
“It’s the simplest model that we can build without assuming any hard-to-prove claims, like selection or environmental change,” Kolodny explained. In other words, “What do I expect would have happened by default?”
Using what researchers already know about ancient hominin population sizes, migration patterns, and the way ecology works, Kolodny and Feldman built a simple computer model that would simulate Neanderthal and Homo sapiensinteractions in Paleolithic Europe. At the start of the simulation, Europe is inhabited by “bands” of Neanderthals that randomly move around and die out. Every so often, a band of modern humans migrates out of Africa and joins the European fray. Bands from each species have equal likelihoods of displacing the other — neither one had an advantage from a natural selection perspective.
Kolodny knew that one species had to go extinct at the end of each simulation. It’s a basic principle of ecology: Two species cannot occupy the same niche at the same time. Sometimes, species will accommodate competition by developing some kind of specialty — for example, in parts of Israel where two similar species of normally nocturnal mice are found, one species adjusts by becoming active during the day. But hominins are generalists, not specialists, and at the time of Neanderthals’ extinction, archaeological evidence suggests their abilities and behavior were pretty similar to ours.
Kolodny and Feldman ran their simulation hundreds of thousands of times, changing the values for a number of different variables to reflect the uncertainty that scientists have about this period of human history. But in the vast majority of cases, under a wide range of parameters, the simulation ended with Neanderthals dying out within 12,000 years. They just couldn’t keep up with the slow trickle of human bands that flowed continuously north from Africa.
This result suggests that the “null hypothesis” — based solely on what we know about basic ecology principles and the gradual human migration into the continent — is sufficient to explain why the Neanderthals disappeared.
It doesn’t necessarily prove that humans didn’t have a selective advantage, or that climate change didn’t influence the Neanderthals’ fate, Kolodny cautioned. “But even if there were no selection and no climate change, the end result would have been the same. It’s a subtle distinction but it’s important.”
Scientists recruited a dentist to help them analyze teeth that belonged to a 130,000-year-old Neanderthal. Their conclusion? The poor soul suffered a lot of dental problems, and probably tried to solve them with a toothpick. (The University of Kansas)
Wil Roebroeks of the University of Leiden in the Netherlands told the Associated Press that this study fits with other research that aims to understand the Neanderthals’ demise without suggesting humans had an evolutionary leg up on our cousins.
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It’s common to think of evolution as a series of battles between species. How can you not, with terms like “survival of the fittest” and “evolutionary arms race” sprinkled throughout biology textbooks? But in nature, creatures aren’t making strategic decisions to win an evolutionary war. They’re just trying to ensure their own existence. The fates of individuals and of species are determined by chance — the gradual accumulation of a fluke of genetics, a quirk of timing, a lucky draw of the evolutionary cards. In the case of our species, modern humans happened to have the deck stacked in their favor.
Kolodny likened this perspective to that of a football fan who, after watching her favorite team win the Super Bowl, finds out that the game had been rigged from the outset. It doesn’t mean that her team didn’t play well, but it should change how she feels about the game.
“It’s not that Neanderthals were these brutish, wide-shouldered, sort of advanced apes that roamed the land until we came over and beat them,” Kolodny said. “It’s more that it was a companion hominin species that was very similar to us.” Indeed, it’s conceivable that their fate could have been ours.
An astonishing new study claims that there may be a ticking time bomb right under our toes, as the soil could be responsible for significant carbon emissions.
A remarkable new study published in the journal Science indicates that carbon emissions from warming soils could be a lot higher than we previously thought, and it could result in a chain of events that would greatly intensify global warming. Researchers found that there was a major uptick in carbon production in microbes found within soil at the Harvard Forest in Massachusetts.
Scientists used underground cables to heat some of the soil plots in the forest, raising the temperature by about 40 degrees Fahrenheit, while unheated plots were set aside as control for the experiment. After about 10 years, scientists measured again and found that carbon emissions from heated soil had greatly increased. After a seven year period where emissions declined again, the carbon emissions went on an upward trajectory once again for six more years.
In the final three years of the study, the carbon emissions from the soil went down again. Both times there was a decline in emissions, scientists think that the microbes were simply adjusting to the new temperatures, and as a result they think that it is just the calm before the storm, as it were. The 26-year study is the biggest of its kind and could result in breakthroughs in how we study and understand global warming and climate change.
The full statement from the Marine Biological Laboratory follows below.
After 26 years, the world’s longest-running experiment to discover how warming temperatures affect forest soils has revealed a surprising, cyclical response: Soil warming stimulates periods of abundant carbon release from the soil to the atmosphere alternating with periods of no detectable loss in soil carbon stores. Overall, the results indicate that in a warming world, a self-reinforcing and perhaps uncontrollable carbon feedback will occur between forest soils and the climate system, adding to the build-up of atmospheric carbon dioxide caused by burning fossil fuels and accelerating global warming. The study, led by Jerry Melillo, Distinguished Scientist at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL), appears in the October 6 issue of Science.
Melillo and colleagues began this pioneering experiment in 1991 in a deciduous forest stand at the Harvard Forest in Massachusetts. They buried electrical cables in a set of plots and heated the soil 5° C above the ambient temperature of control plots. Over the course of the 26-year experiment (which still continues), the warmed plots lost 17 percent of the carbon that had been stored in organic matter in the top 60 centimeters of soil.
“To put this in context,” Melillo says, “each year, mostly from fossil fuel burning, we are releasing about 10 billion metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere. That’s what’s causing the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration and global warming. The world’s soils contain about 3,500 billion metric tons of carbon. If a significant amount of that soil carbon is added to the atmosphere, due to microbial activity in warmer soils, that will accelerate the global warming process. And once this self-reinforcing feedback begins, there is no easy way to turn it off. There is no switch to flip.”
Over the course of the experiment, Melillo’s team observed fluctuations in the rate of soil carbon emission from the heated plots, indicating cycles in the capacity of soil microbes to degrade organic matter and release carbon. Phase I (1991 to 2000) was a period of substantial soil carbon loss that was rapid at first, then slowed to near zero. In Phase II (2001-2007), there was no difference in carbon emissions between the warmed and the control plots. During that time, the soil microbial community in the warmed plots was undergoing reorganization that led to changes in the community’s structure and function. In Phase III (2008-2013), carbon release from heated plots again exceeded that from control plots. This coincided with a continued shift in the soil microbial community. Microbes that can degrade more recalcitrant soil organic matter, such as lignin, became more dominant, as shown by genomic and extracellular enzyme analyses. In Phase IV (2014 to current), carbon emissions from the heated plots have again dropped, suggesting that another reorganization of the soil microbial community could be underway. If the cyclical pattern continues, Phase IV will eventually transition to another phase of higher carbon loss from the heated plots.
“This work emphasizes the value of long-term ecological studies that are the hallmark of research at the MBL’s Ecosystems Center,” says David Mark Welch, MBL’s Director of Research. “These large field studies, combined with modeling and an increasingly sophisticated understanding of the role of microbial communities in ecosystem dynamics, provide new insight to the challenges posed by climate change.”
“The future is a warmer future. How much warmer is the issue,” Melillo says. “In terms of carbon emissions from fossil fuels, we could control that. We could shut down coal-fired power plants, for example. But if the microbes in all landscapes respond to warming in the same way as we’ve observed in mid-latitude forest soils, this self-reinforcing feedback phenomenon will go on for a while and we are not going to be able to turn those microbes off. Of special concern is the big pool of easily decomposed carbon that is frozen in Artic soils. As those soils thaw out, this feedback phenomenon would be an important component of the climate system, with climate change feeding itself in a warming world.”
Collaborators in this study include S.D. Frey, M.A. Knorr, and A.S. Grandy of the University of New Hampshire’s Department of Natural Resources and the Environment; K.M. DeAngelis of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst’s Department of Microbiology; W.J. Werner and M.J. Bernard of the Marine Biological Laboratory; F.P. Bowles of Research Designs in Lyme, N.H.; and G. Pold of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology.
Melillo, J.M. et al (2017) Long-Term Pattern and Magnitude of Soil Carbon Feedback to the Climate System in a Warming World. Science DOI:
The Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) is dedicated to scientific discovery – exploring fundamental biology, understanding marine biodiversity and the environment, and informing the human condition through research and education. Founded in Woods Hole, Massachusetts in 1888, the MBL is a private, nonprofit institution and an affiliate of the University of Chicago.
Contact: Andrea Medeiros,
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has found that the Pacific walrus does
not require protection as threatened or endangered under the Endangered
Species Act (ESA). The finding follows a comprehensive review and analysis
of the best available scientific information concerning the species, as
well as local and traditional ecological knowledge of Alaska Native peoples.
The Pacific walrus is found throughout the continental shelf waters of the
Bering and Chukchi seas and occasionally in the East Siberian Sea and
Beaufort Sea. In its review, the Service paid particular attention to the
impact to the species of the ongoing loss of sea ice in the walrus’s range.
While walruses use sea ice for a variety of activities, including breeding,
birthing, resting and avoiding predators, they have shown an ability to
adapt to sea ice loss that was not foreseen when the Service last assessed
the species in 2011. Given these behavioral changes, the Service determined
that it could not predict, with confidence, future behavioral responses of
the species beyond 2060. Accordingly, that date was used as the limit for
determining whether the walrus was likely to become endangered within the
“foreseeable future,” under the ESA. Beyond that time, predicting
behavioral responses becomes too speculative to be considered best
available science for the purposes of a listing determination.
“Our decision not to list the Pacific walrus under the Endangered Species
Act at this time is based on a rigorous evaluation of the best available
science, which indicates the population appears stable, and the species has
demonstrated an ability to adapt to changing conditions,” said Fish and
Wildlife Service Principal Deputy Director Greg Sheehan. “If future
circumstances warrant or new information comes to light, we can and will
re-evaluate the Pacific walrus for ESA protection. In the meantime, the
species will continue to be federally protected under the Marine Mammal
Other stressors that were identified in 2011, including subsistence
harvest, have declined. The Pacific walrus population appears to be
approaching stability with reproductive and survival rates that are higher
than in the 1970s–1980s.
The Pacific walrus will continue to receive protection in the U.S. under
the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). Protections afforded under the
MMPA include prohibitions on the harvest, import, and export of the Pacific
walrus or walrus products, except by Alaska Natives for subsistence and
handicraft creation and sale. In addition to monitoring the population, the
Service will continue to work with the State of Alaska, coastal communities
and other partners to conserve the Pacific walrus population and minimize
the impacts of stressors where possible.
The decision today is the Service’s final action regarding a petition
submitted to the agency in 2008 to list the Pacific walrus. For more
information regarding this decision, please visit: https://www.fws.gov/alaska/fisheries/mmm/walrus/esa.htm.
“Huge proportions of the plant and animal species that form the foundation of our food supply are just as endangered [as wildlife] and are getting almost no attention,” Ann Tutwiler, director general of Bioversity International, wrote in an article for the Guardian.
“If there is one thing we cannot allow to become extinct, it is the species that provide the food that sustains each and every one of the seven billion people on our planet,” she said.
According to the report, 940 cultivated species are already threatened. Tutwiler emphasized the impact on popular foods and commodities:
“Take some consumer favorites: chips, chocolate and coffee. Up to 22% of wild potato species are predicted to become extinct by 2055 due to climate change. In Ghana and Ivory Coast, where the raw ingredient for 70% of our chocolate is grown, cacao trees will not be able to survive as temperatures rise by two degrees over the next 40 years. Coffee yields in Tanzania have dropped 50% since 1960.”
Additionally, of the estimated 5,538 plant species counted as food, just three—rice, wheat and maize—provide more than 50 percent of the world’s plant-derived calories.
“Relying so heavily on such a narrow resource base is a risky strategy for the planet, for individual livelihoods and for nutritious diets,” the report states.
As the Guardian pointed out, a disease or pest can sweep through large areas of monocultures, like during the Irish potato famine when a million people starved to death.
Tutwiler noted that the world’s incredible diversity of wild or rarely cultivated species—such the beta carotene-rich gac fruit from Vietnam or the vitamin A-filled Asupina banana—”can be a source of affordable, nutritious food—provided we don’t let it disappear.”
“This ‘agrobiodiversity’ is a precious resource that we are losing, and yet it can also help solve or mitigate many challenges the world is facing,” she said. “It has a critical yet overlooked role in helping us improve global nutrition, reduce our impact on the environment and adapt to climate change.”
In an interview with FoodTank, Tutwiler commented on how agribusiness and the Western diet has also contributed to the world’s loss of biological diversity of food:
“From the production side, a focus on ‘feeding the world’ rather than ‘nourishing the world’ has led to a focus on a handful of starchy staples that has contributed to an increase in land planted with maize, wheat, and rice from 66 percent to 79 percent of all cereal area between 1961 and 2013.
On the consumption side, there is a growing global tendency towards Western diets and processed convenience foods. Diets are based more and more on major cereals, plus sugar and oil. So these now dominate our agricultural production. Of the 30,000-ish plant species that can be used as food, today only three—rice, wheat, and maize—provide half the world’s plant-derived calories and intakes of pulses, fruits, and vegetables are low.
At the same time, the same pressures that are driving the sixth mass extinction of wild biodiversity are also affecting agricultural biodiversity—habitat transformation, deforestation, invasive species, and climate change. They also lead to disruption in pollinators and natural pest control. Loss of wild biodiversity can lead to erosion of genetic diversity (like the wild relatives of crops, which are a valuable source of traits for breeding), which reduces options for breeding new plant varieties better adapted to climate change.”
Bioversity International’s new 200-page report, “Mainstreaming Agrobiodiversity in Sustainable Food Systems,” highlights how governments and companies should protect and encourage agrobiodiversity to tackle wider global problems such as poverty, malnutrition, environmental degradation and climate change.
The planet has experienced five mass extinction events. The worst, the Permian Mass Extinction event 252 million years ago, annihilated more than 95 percent of all life on Earth. It coincided with a significant increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2).
The Permian Mass Extinction is the perfect example of what happens when you inject too much CO2 into the atmosphere. The way in which the oceans absorbed this CO2, and subsequently acidified, was the primary kill mechanism for that event.
Disturbingly, a scientific paper published last week in the journal Science Advances, titled “Thresholds of Catastrophe in the Earth System,” shows that if humans continue adding carbon to the oceans as we are on course to do, a global mass extinction event could be triggered by 2100.
Oceans as Killing Fields
The oceans are where the majority of life on Earth exists. There are more plants and animals in them than anywhere else.
The Science Advances study places the carbon threshold necessary to trigger another oceanic mass extinction event at 310 gigatons — and notes that we are already halfway there. Worst-case predictions show that humans could add 500 gigatons of carbon to the oceans by 2100 if we continue on with business as usual.
The paper’s lead author, MIT’s Daniel Rothman, told Motherboard that if humanity crosses that carbon threshold, it will move the planet “to the other side of the stability boundary.” He added that there won’t be an apocalyptic and immediate die-off of species the moment that threshold is crossed; it might take 10,000 years for the disaster to unfold.
Every mass extinction event thus far has been marked by a major disruption of the planet’s carbon cycle. Now, too, the driver of the extinction threat is increasing CO2 levels in the atmosphere. Previous mass extinction events usually saw this increase caused by volcanism. The Permian Mass Extinction, for example, was triggered when volcanism in Siberia caused magma to be introduced into peat and coal deposits which then released a massive amount of CO2 into the atmosphere and then the oceans.
Humans have already added 155 gigatons of carbon to the oceans since 1850, and could double that in just the next 83 years, or sooner. The current rate of carbon emissions is 11 gigatons released into the atmosphere annually, with 2.6 gigatons of that being absorbed into the oceans. This gives us around 80 years until we cross the threshold of triggering the next mass extinction event, according to the study.
Therefore, the pace of carbon being added to the atmosphere and ocean right now is already faster than it was during the Permian, by far the worst mass extinction event on Earth.
Meanwhile, the pH of oceans has dropped a stunning 30 percent since the Industrial Revolution began, and it is acidifying now at the fastest pace it ever has.
A 2012 study showed that oceans are acidifying faster than they have in the past 300 million years, which means they are already acidifying at higher speeds than they did during the Permian.
Another study showed that species are going extinct at a rate 1,000 times faster than the normal background rate.
“Five times in the Phanerozoic [the past 542 million years], more than three-fourths of marine animal species have vanished in mass extinctions,” reads the introduction of the study. “Each of these events is associated with a significant change in Earth’s carbon cycle.”
Scientists have been warning for decades that human actions are pushing life on our shared planet toward mass extinction. Such extinction events have occurred five times in the past, but a bold new paper finds that this time would be fundamentally different. Fortunately, there’s still time to stop it.
Periodically, in the vast spans of time that have preceded us, our planet’s living beings have been purged by planetary catastrophes so extreme they make your typical Ice Age look like the geological equivalent of a stroll in the park. Scientists count just five mass extinctions in an unimaginably long expanse of 450 million years, but they warn we may well be entering a sixth.
According to a bold new paper in The Anthropocene Review, this time would be different from past mass extinctions in four crucial ways – and all of these stem from the impact of a single species that arrived on the scene just 200,000 years ago: Homo sapiens.
“There is no point in apportioning blame for what is happening,” said lead author and geologist, Mark Williams, with the University of Leicester, since humans “didn’t deliberately engineer this situation.”
“Rather we have to recognise that our impact is game-changing on this planet, that we are all responsible, and that we have to become stewards of nature – as a part of it, rather than behaving like children rampaging through a sweetshop,” Williams noted.
The impacts of a still-avoidable sixth mass extinction would likely be so massive they’d be best described as science fiction. It would be catastrophic, widespread and, of course, irreversible. In the past, it has taken life ten to thirty million years to recover after such an extinction, 40 to 120 times as long as modern-looking humans have been telling tales by firelight. Moreover, Williams and his team argue that future changes driven by humanity may go so far as to create not just a new epoch in geologic history – such as the widely-touted Anthropocene – but a fundamental reshaping of Earth on par with the rise of microbes or the later shift from microbes to multicellular organisms.
“Fundamental changes on a planetary system scale have already begun,” said co-author Peter Haff, a geologist and engineer with Duke University. “The very considerable uncertainty is how long these will last – whether they will simply be a brief, unique excursion in Earth history, or whether they will persist and evolve into a new, geologically long-lasting, planetary state.”
But what are these “fundamental changes” that would makes this mass extinction different from the previous five?
“Episodes of global warming, ocean acidification and mass extinction have all happened before, well before humans arrived on the planet,” co-author Jan Zaleasiewicz, a paleobiologist with the University of Leicester, said. “We wanted to see if there was something different about what is happening now.”
Turns out there is.
Meet the four horsemen of the Sixth Mass Extinction
The team of geologists and biologists say that our current extinction crisis is unique in Earth’s history due to four characteristics: the spread of non-native species around the world; a single species (us) taking over a significant percentage of the world’s primary production; human actions increasingly directing evolution; and the rise of something called the technosphere.
The first real change is what the authors of the study call the “global homogenisation of flora and fauna.” Basically what this means is that you can eat tomatoes in Italy, hunt oryx in Texas, ride horses in Chile, curse cane toads in Australia, dig earthworms in eastern North America and catch rats in the Galapagos. None of these things would have been possible without human intervention: our penchant for globetrotting has brought innumerable species to new habitats, often wreaking havoc on existing ecological communities and sometimes leading to extinctions.
Secondly, over the last few centuries, humans have essentially become the top predator not only on land, but also across the sea. No other species in the past can claim such a distinction. In doing so, humanity has begun using 25 to 40% of the planet’s net primary production for its own purposes. Moreover, we have added to this the use of fossil fuels for energy, essentially mining primary production from the past.
“It’s not hubris to say this,” Williams contended. “Never before have animal and plants (and other organisms for that matter) been translocated on a global scale around the planet. Never before has one species dominated primary production in the manner that we do. Never before has one species remodelled the terrestrial biosphere so dramatically to serve its own ends – the huge amount of biomass in the animals we eat.”
Thirdly, humanity has become a massive force in directing evolution. This is most apparent, of course, in the domestication of animals and the cultivation of crops over thousands of years. But humans are directing evolution in numerous other ways, as well.
“We are directly manipulating genomes by artificial selection and molecular techniques, and indirectly by managing ecosystems and populations to conserve them,” said co-author Erle Ellis, an expert on the Anthropocene with the University of Maryland. He added that even conservation is impacting evolution.
“As human management of ecosystems and populations increases, even when aimed at conservation, evolutionary processes are altered. To sustain processes of evolution that are not guided by human societies intentionally and unintentionally will require a sea change in management approaches.”
Finally, the current extinction crisis is being amplified by what the researchers call the technosphere.
Peter Haff coined the term technosphere just last year. He defines the technosphere as “the global, energy consuming techno-social system that is comprised of humans, technological artifacts, and technological systems, together with the links, protocols and information that bind all these parts together.”
Basically, the technosphere is the vast, sprawling combination of humanity and its technology. Haff argues that in our thousands of years of harnessing technology – including the first technologies like stone tools, wheels and crops – the technology itself has basically begun to act practically independently, creating a new sphere (i.e., like the biosphere or atmosphere or lithosphere), but like nothing the planet has ever seen before.
“I would argue that domesticated animals and plants, as well as humans, are parts of the technosphere,” said Haff. “These are in effect manufactured by the technosphere for its own use on the basis of genetic blueprints appropriated from the biosphere.”
We’ve reached a point, according to Haff, where we can’t just shut technology off. As such, the technosphere as a whole is elevated above humanity.
“In this sense, the technosphere already generates its own living tissue, thus integrating with biology,” noted Haff.
Although, humans were the original progenitors of this technology, we have, in effect, lost control. Like Doctor Frankenstein from Mary Shelley’s great novel, not only has our creation asserted its own agency, but it now wields its power over us.
Although the paper relies heavily on the idea of the technosphere as a primary driver of both the extinction crisis and current geological changes, not every researcher in the study agreed with the idea.
“I am a dissenter on the use of this term…I would have eliminated it if it were up to me alone. I find the term ‘technosphere’ neither appropriate nor accurate…It makes it appear that technology is the defining element of human alteration of the Earth system,” Ellis said, adding that “humans and societies create and sustain technologies, not the other way around – though of course there is a tight coupling of societies with technologies.”
Ellis called such an idea not only “inaccurate,” but defeatist.
“[The concept of the technosphere] is politically and socially disenfranchising and alienating people and societies – and their potential to guide, at least to some degree, this global human force behind the anthropocene.”
To Ellis the key is not the rise of technology, but rather humanity’s incredibly rich social life. He maintains that our “ultrasocialness” is the major driving force behind the changes on the planet we are witnessing today.
“It was behaviorally modern humans, with their ultrasocial behaviors and complex societies that spread across the Earth, became increasingly larger scale societies, ultimately gaining the capacity to transform the entire Earth. Technology is not the driver of Earth system change – social change is the cause of this.”
But Haff insists that technology, not modern humans, is the “new and enabling ingredient” for global transformation – including the potential for mass extinction.
“The technosphere is not meant as a stand in or short hand for a supposed ‘novel human force’ in the earth system,” he explained. “The name ‘technosphere’ arose in part to discourage such an idea. There exists no such human force. What is present, and novel, is the collective system of many people and much technology.”
Like Nothing the Earth Has Ever Seen
Regardless of whether scientists stress the role of humans or technology in transforming the planet, the researchers all agree that the arrival of modern Homo sapiens has transformed the planet. But how much?
“If humans were to go extinct tomorrow, then our impact on the biosphere would be recognisable as an epoch boundary – like the boundary between the Pleistocene and Holocene,” Williams pointed out. “After us, a few tens to hundreds of thousands of years in the future, the biosphere would find a new equilibrium without us, and probably with its biodiversity largely intact.”
Or as the paper puts it: “if the technosphere were to collapse what would remain is physical evidence of its history, as a preserved stratigraphic signal in the rocks. This will include a short-lived event bed of ‘urban strata’ and related deposits, recording rapid technospheric evolution and deep roots via preserved tunnels, mines and boreholes; a climate perturbation that might last [100-200,000 years] and a permanent reconfiguration of the biosphere…resulting from the effect of trans-global species invasions and a moderate- to large-scale mass extinction event.”
Okay, but what if we don’t go extinct anytime soon?
“If the changes made to the biosphere by humans continue to accelerate and are sustainable, and if our interaction with the technosphere becomes a major component of Earth’s future trajectory, then the changes can be argued to be really fundamental,” Williams added.
The scientists argue then that the changes would be so extreme, and so unlike anything that the Earth has ever seen before, that it could represent a geological shift as big as the rise of microbes on the planet or the rise of multicellular organisms. For example, imagine a world where humans and their technology effectively control the global temperature through geo-engineering or a world where humans wholeheartedly and deliberately manipulate evolution for their own (or the technosphere’s) ends.
Zaleasiewicz said that while some researchers argue that such changes could turn out all right, most argue the still-developing Anthropocene “will mostly be a very bumpy ride for humanity, and for life in general, as it evolves,” adding that “previous perturbations of the Earth system have seen both winners and losers, so perhaps that is a more realistic scenario.”
So, WTF Do We DO?
The researchers are clear: we can’t go back in time, to some pre-human, arguably pristine environment.
“There is no ‘ending’: the challenges of the Anthropocene are permanent,” said Ellis. “Humanity and nature are inextricably coupled for the foreseeable future.”
Moreover, according to Zaleasiewicz, the momentum is not on our side.
“There’s clearly a rapidly moving – and accelerating – dynamic involved, and it can be argued that this is needed and inevitable to feed, clothe and shelter and extra two to three billion people over the next few decades.”
However, even with all that, the scientists say it’s not too late to avoid a total mass extinction and ecological meltdown.
“We are not in a mass extinction event yet, and it’s very important to emphasise that, because it means we can still make changes,” said Williams.
The scientists agree that to avoid mass extinction – and tackle the current environmental crisis – is possible but will require large-scale changes not only in how society operates but how humans view their relation to the natural world.
“It’s about recognising that we are stewards of nature and that every action we make will have an effect on the biosphere somewhere,” said Williams. “If at a very basic level we could get people to make that connection then we would have fundamentally changed human behavior.”
But how do we do this?
“I think there are parallels with getting people to recognize that ‘drunk driving’ is a mistake or ‘wearing a seatbelt is a good thing,’” Williams went on. “I remember the campaigns from the 1970s and though this might sound glib, it’s fundamental to the problem. Humans are the problem, but they are also the solution.”
Ellis agreed that humans must move on from the view that we are somehow separate from nature (or that nature somehow exists separate from us) and, instead, embrace our role as “permanent shapers and stewards of the biosphere and the species within it.”
He also sees several positive trends underway, including urbanisation, rising awareness of the plight of biodiversity, the increasing potential for societies to create change at large scales and the possibility of decoupling of the global economy from ecosystem destruction.
“Still, the large scale of modern societies is daunting,” Ellis cautioned, “and for these trends to reach their full potential will require far greater strategic effort – just letting things happen will not yield a better future.”
According to him practical solutions “will require a combination of conservation, restoration, rewilding, engineering, emergence, and design.”
“We must recognize that there is no option to ‘leave the Earth alone,’ “ Ellis added. “The responsibility for the future of the planet is ours now.”
It’s a big responsibility – bigger than any other species on Earth has ever faced – and so far we’ve hardly proved ourselves up to it. But there is still time. And time means hope – but not without action.
The world will be vaporized in roughly 7 billion years, when the sun expands into an enormous red giant star and explodes across the solar system. Or, perhaps a 60-mile-wide asteroid will crash into Earth well before then, ending life as we know it.
The scientific community has said for decades that either of these apocalyptic scenarios could ultimately provide the final nail in our planet’s coffin, citing fact-based research and historical data to back up such bold assumptions. Doomsday theories continue spreading online almost annually, however, leading countless readers to believe the end of time is much more imminent than originally anticipated—without any tangible evidence or support.
The latest prediction comes from the evangelical Christian publication Unsealed, and says the end of the world will occur—get ready!—on Saturday. A four-minute videothe site created promising to explain how the world will meet its ultimate demise has been going viral recently, spurring a number of copycat apocalyptic predictions for the upcoming weekend.
In the Unsealed video, a mythical pregnant woman is attacked by a seven-headed dragon in the sky. Onscreen text claims images of the two figures will appear above Jerusalem and Israel on Saturday, before the heavens above open and unleash fiery hell on Earth.
September 23 marks 33 days since last month’s historic solar eclipse, a “very biblically significant, numerologically significant number,” David Meade, a researcher dubbed a “Christian numerologist,” told The Washington Post Sunday.
“Jesus lived for 33 years. The name Elohim, which is the name of God to the Jews, was mentioned 33 times [in the Bible] … The world is not ending, but the world as we know it is ending,” he said. “A major part of the world will not be the same the beginning of October.”
The biblical apocalypse also involves Nibiru, a supposed brown dwarf that’s surrounded by other planets and set to strike Earth in just a matter of time.
The only problem with this theory? It was already debunked years ago by a senior space scientist for NASA.
“In the inner solar system, we see planets with stable orbits, we see the moon going around the Earth,” NASA scientist David Morrison explains in a video from 2012 titled Nibiru Does Not Exist. “The very existence of this stability in the inner solar system proves that no rogue planet, no interfering object has come through the inner solar system in at least a million years.
“Please get over it,” Morrison added. “We don’t need to worry about this hoax.”
It is crystal clear—unlike the smoky skies where I live–to most of us who are willing to consider the facts: this summer’s ‘natural’ disasters have been seeded anthropogenically. Wildfires in the northwestern United States and Canada, in Greenland, and in Europe are often referred to in the media as ‘unprecedented’ in size and fury. Hurricanes and monsoons, with their attendant floods and destruction, are routinely described as having a multitude of ‘record-breaking’ attributes. No one reading this is likely to need convincing that humans –our sheer numbers as well as our habits—have contributed significantly to rising planetary temperatures and thus, the plethora of somehow unexpected and catastrophic events in the natural world. I’d like to include earthquakes, particularly those in Turkey (endless) and Mexico (massive), in this discussion, and while intuition tells me that there is a connection between them and climate change, research to support this supposition is just emerging, so for the nonce I will leave the earthquakes out of it.
Our proclivity for advancing our own short-term interests has made a mess of things from the beginnings of this current iteration of civilization. Irrigating the Fertile Crescent, which was not very fertile prior to the ingenious innovation of bringing water from the mountains down into the dusty plains, opened the way for a massive increase in food production and a concomitant population rise. Cities grew and became kingdoms. After a reasonably good run, though, irrigation led to salination of the soil and ultimately left it sterile and useless (for agriculture) once again. Many people and their livestock starved or were forced to migrate in large numbers. Great idea, irrigation.
The internal combustion engine seemed a brilliant response to the need to move more commodities more efficiently as the Industrial Revolution created both increased product and demand. Though not necessarily so intended, the automobile initially offered humans wildly expanded freedom and ease. It also led to pumping the innards out of the Earth, filling the atmosphere with CO2, and oil-grabbing wars that left hundreds of thousands of people dead. Another great idea with a few minor issues that did not get worked out ahead of time.
Plastic. Now there is an incredible invention. Tough, pliable, lightweight, eternal…this stuff filled a myriad of needs. And conveniently, it could be produced using the fossil fuels we were already extracting for those internal combustion engines. Sadly, we never imagined it would come to microscopic plastic filaments in our drinking water, our sea salt, and even our beer. Not to mention in the bellies of just about anything that lives in the Earth’s oceans.
The list of creative inventions designed to make our lives better is long and varied, but almost inevitably, given enough time, our interference (or improvements, if you prefer) upon the natural state of things comes back to bite us. And hard. Fukushima could easily head up that list; most of us would have no trouble adding to the tally of follies flowing from Homo sapiens’ clever life hacks.
If you delve into the motivation behind these ‘advances’ there is generally a desire on the part of people to make life safer or more comfortable or easier in one way or another. Maybe for themselves and their tribe, or their class, or their nation, but still—the impetus does not tend to flow from a place of malignity. We simply use our big brains to see what is adversely impacting our species (or sub-group thereof) and devise a fix for it. How could that possibly go so wrong?
Hindsight, they say, is always more acute than foresight. Could this be because we do not understand fully how our world works? Is it possible that we lack a lot of critical information about the ways in which this planet’s life forms and forces are interwoven and connected? Maybe our superior intelligence, while it has been billed as a powerhouse in the problem-solving department, does not really have the scope of vision that would ensure that problems—solved–stay solved? Hmmm…might there be an issue with hubris here? And how do we solve that?
What appear to be straightforward challenges that should yield to linear corrections are in fact predominantly multifaceted and many layered. We see only what we see—because we do have limits in terms of perception– and we act upon that. No real fault there. But you do something over and over and over and get consistent results, you keep being bitten by your brilliant solutions. Quick gains, long-term disasters: this is a pretty common human story. Are we capable of examining it? Even acknowledging it? Of recognizing that our anthropocentrism and self-assurance may be doing us more harm than good despite (or possibly because of) our fêted cognitive capacities?
So here we are: the summer of 2017 with the arctic ice melting, the temperatures rising, the oceans rising and acidifying, our non-human companions on the planet going extinct like nobody’s business. We thought about ourselves from the get-go. From the beginning of known human history, we wanted better lives, longer lives, happier lives. For ourselves. We used our gifts to reach for what we wanted, like toddlers, with no sense of the bigger world around us, no notion of the consequences of our actions. No awareness of the unfathomable complexity and the perfection of balance represented by the environment we inhabit.
Or, no will to act from that awareness. Because in all fairness, someone has always pointed to it. Not everyone thought situating nuclear power plants on earthquake faults was a bright idea. And no doubt there was someone back in Sumer who advised stridently against the moving of mountain waters to the fields in the valley. But the collective, or the powers that own the collective, were not interested in anything that thwarted short-term gains.
We have careened along, from one improvement to another, many of them requiring their own fix a bit down the road. Now we look at super-storms and mega-fires and what do we see?
Unfortunately, as is almost always the case, we see our own interests and little else. I have been perusing reports and commentary from a wide variety of sources and there is a lot of factual information: the size of the fire, how many miles per hour the winds are blowing, how many acres are still uncontained, or in thrall to the winds and rain. Then, there are stories about losses. Photos and videos and details about homes destroyed, businesses wiped off the map, human injury and death.
But do we talk about the other life forms affected by these human-accelerated events in nature? In nature, I repeat. Do we read or talk or hear about the animals who die? The trees lost? The sea life and habitat ruined? Yup, there are bits and pieces about the animals that belong to us, which are, like our houses and businesses and automobiles, more possessions. Pets, livestock, even zoo animals are considered. How do we shelter the cheetah at the Miami Zoo? Or what about the Cuban dolphins airlifted out of danger to a safe place on the opposite side of the island? Heartwarming, I suppose, and good for those dolphins, but what happened to the wild ones in the sea?
Here is the thing: we helped make these disasters because we always thought about ourselves and neglected to consider the balance of life. Because our needs were far and away more important to us than the spotted salamanders’.
And maybe that is true. Maybe our lives are more valuable than all the other lives. Who am I to say? I too am human and subject to the same hubris and shortsightedness as everyone else.
Still…if something is not working, I ask: why keep doing it? Even if you have no natural affinity for the pine martens who die in the fires or the sandpipers who are flung to their deaths in the monsoons, pragmatism would suggest a change in practice.
We can’t prevent the suffering and dying of wild life, and the Earth herself, when confronted by the unleashed forces of fire and water, but we can include them in our assessment of the cost. We might even grieve for them. Their losses are indeed ours, and if we do not see them or their importance to our lives, if we continue to either ignore and/or dominate all other life on this planet, it won’t be long till we join them.
This piece of writing is, in a ridiculously small way, an attempt to acknowledge those losses that have gone unseen. It isn’t much, but I invite you to join me in taking a few minutes to honor and mourn those who have died in this summer’s conflagrations and deluges. We won’t know much about most of them, but we do know that they lived and we know that they died. And that we are all diminished by their deaths.
[…but they forgot to tell us what time on the 23rd–I haven’t got all day to wait around…]
SEP 16 2017 08:09AM CDT
UPDATED: SEP 16 2017 10:27AM CDT
(FoxNews.com) – Christian numerologists claim that the world will end on Sept. 23, 2017 as they believe a planet will collide with Earth.
According to Christian numerologist David Meade, verses in Luke 21: 25 to 26 is the sign that recent events, such as the recent solar eclipse and Hurricane Harvey, are signs of the apocalypse.
The verses read:
“25: There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’
“’26: Men’s hearts failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth: for the powers of heaven shall be shaken.’
Sept. 23 is a date that was pinpointed using codes from the Bible, as well as a “date marker” in the pyramids of Giza in Egypt.
Meade has built his theory, which is viewed with a widely skeptical lens, on the so-called Planet X, which is also known as Nibiru, which he believes will pass Earth on Sept. 23, causing volcanic eruptions, tsunamis and earthquakes, according to British newspaper The Sun.
NASA has repeatedly said Planet X is a hoax.
Revelation 12:1–2, is supposed to be the start of the Rapture and second coming of Christ, which is also being mentioned heavily by Christian conspiracy theorists.
The passage reads: “And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of 12 stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth.”
In the passage, the woman is Virgo. On Sept. 23, both the Sun and the Moon will be in Virgo, as will the planet Jupiter. However, this occurence happens naturally once every 12 years. There is also a rare alignment, known as “the Lion of the tribe of Judah,” which the conspiracy theorists are hanging their hats on.
According to the Express, author Jonathan Sarfati wrote that the same planetary coincidence previously happened four times in the last millennium.
“As usual with any astrology (or Christian adaptations of it), one cherry-picks the stars that fit the desired conclusion,” Sarfati wrote, according to the Express. “There is nothing to suggest that 23 September is a momentous date for biblical prophecy, and Christians need to be careful about being drawn into such sensationalist claims.”
[warning: this is a bullshit editorial in so many ways. The authors basically trash Paul Erlich and praise trophy hunting as a way to save animals from extinction (no mention of how twisted, destructive or hedonistic it is). This would all be a bad joke, if it wasnt so sad and maddening…]
For millions of years, Australia had no human inhabitants. When people finally arrived there some 45,000 years ago, the continent had 24 different creatures weighing 100 pounds or more. Within a few millennia, 23 were wiped out.
In his book “Sapiens,” Yuval Noah Harari notes: “Long before the Industrial Revolution, Homo Sapiens held the record among all organisms for driving the most plant and animal species to their extinction. We have the dubious distinction of being the deadliest species in the annals of biology.”
From all indications, we are not about to be dethroned. A new study published in a journal of the National Academy of Sciences says nearly 200 species have vanished in the past century, and 9,000 have seen substantial reductions in their numbers. Only 7,000 cheetahs are left, and the population of West African lions is down to 400. Scientists suggest that Earth is well into the sixth mass extinction of the last half-billion years.
We are seeing “a massive erosion of the greatest biological diversity in the history of Earth,” which negatively affects the resources that sustain human life, says the article. The authors call for a reversal of “human overpopulation” and “overconsumption, especially by the rich.” One of the scholars, Paul Ehrlich of Stanford, told The Washington Post, “I am an alarmist.”
But the alarmism may be overdone. Ehrlich is infamous for erroneously predicting imminent mass global famine in his 1968 book “The Population Bomb.” Humans turned out to be more adaptive and resourceful than he expected then, and there is no reason to believe they won’t act to prevent the catastrophe being predicted now.
Climate change is one significant factor in the loss of creatures, and the nations of the world have entered into an accord to combat it by curbing greenhouse gas emissions. Even without the participation of the United States, that effort is bound to do some good — and it can be done without hobbling economic growth.
A materially richer world is likely to be a more ecologically conscientious one. “The countries that are wealthiest do the most to protect habitat and species health,” says Reed Watson, executive director the Property and Environment Research Center, a think tank in Bozeman, Mont.
That’s because conservation is one of the things people come to value more and more as their disposable income grows. Poor nations can’t afford to worry so much about the plight of animals because they are preoccupied with feeding and housing people.
Humans are good at finding ways to protect the environment and our fellow creatures when the need is there. When the federal Wilderness Act was passed in 1964, it designated 9 million acres of land as wilderness. Today, we have nearly 110 million acres that provide unspoiled habitat for innumerable species.
Other federal lands such as national parks and forests are also protected from most forms of development — amounting to more than one-seventh of all the land in the country. Neighboring residents have learned that they can profit from tourists who come to hike remote woodland trails and see grizzly bears, eagles and wolves. All this is the fruit of prosperity, not poverty.
One challenge in saving species is devising methods that encourage humans to see animals as an asset, not a burden or danger. American bison, once hunted almost to extinction, have rebounded partly because ranchers raise them for food. Ocean fisheries have been rebuilt by limiting the annual harvest while granting fisherman transferable rights to a share of it — thus giving them a stake in conservation.
Namibia has boosted the number of black rhinoceroses, once down to six, to more than 1,400, reports NPR, while doubling the numbers of both cheetahs and elephants. It has also virtually eliminated poaching. How? By enabling communities to establish conservation areas and administer them in ways that benefit the people living there. One element that PERC’s Watson acknowledges is “counterintuitive” is regulated trophy hunting, which generates income that rewards locals for protecting iconic species.
The report provides a sobering picture of how much irreversible damage could be done to worldwide biological diversity. Unlike other creatures, humans can consciously shape the future for generations to come. We should use ingenuity for the benefit of the countless creatures with which we share the Earth. That would also be good for our species.