Scientists call occurrences in Earth’s history where significant numbers of living species go extinct as Mass Extinction Events. There have been many Mass Extinction events throughout the roughly 4 Billion year history of Earth, but five of them were major events where over 50% of living species died. The most widely known of the five extinction events occurred 65 Million years ago when the dinosaurs went extinct. The commonly accepted cause for that event is an asteroid colliding with the Earth, however other theories have been put forth including increased volcanic activity combined with multiple asteroid strikes. Dinosaur fossils are found only below a certain layer of the Earth, which has allowed scientists to date the approximate time period of the extinction. [i]
While the Dino-Killer was the most recent, and perhaps the most famous extinction event, it was not the largest. 250 million years ago, a major extinction event took place that wiped out 70% of land-based vertebrates and almost all marine species.[ii] We don’t know exactly what caused the event with theories ranging from gradual environmental changes to massive asteroid collisions, volcanic activity, sea level changes and the like. [iii] It took an extended period for life to recover from this mass extinction event. [iv]
The next great mass extinction event is right under our nose, yet the average person knows little, if anything, about it. The worst part about this extinction is the cause: us. Man’s activities have been devastating the natural habitat of plant and animal species all over the planet. Pollution, invasive species, and climate change, along with habitat destruction for development are producing what some scientists call the fastest rate of extinction we’ve ever seen.[v]
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is the world’s oldest and largest global environmental organization. In their most recent analysis, published in 2009, they’ve discovered that over 16,000 species are now threatened with extinction. The numbers are staggering, especially in our oceans. Overfishing, coastal development and pollution, as well as climate change and invasive species have put 17 percent of shark species at risk of extinction, 12 percent of grouper species, and 6 of the 7 marine turtle species are now threatened.[vi]
Worldwide, half of the mammals on earth are declining in population. In Asia, almost 80% of primate species are threatened with extinction because of hunting and habitat destruction. Recently, the World Wildlife Fund published a frightening report on the tiger. 100 years ago, there were over 100,000 tigers alive in the wild. Today, there are 3,200. Man is cutting down forests for construction, and poachers kill tigers for their skins. Without intervention, tigers could be extinct in the wild in a little over a decade.[vii]
As the Earth’s temperature warms, and 2010 matched the warmest year on record, scientists predict 20-30% of species will be lost just from the change in temperature.[viii]
This may sound like doom and gloom hysteria, but only until you read the information. The numbers do not lie, and man’s activities are too obvious to ignore. When you throw mile-wide fishing nets into the ocean, dump toxic waste into lakes, rivers and the open sea, cut down acres of forestland without reforesting, use slash and burn techniques in the rainforest[ix] to create temporary farmland, it doesn’t take a degree in anything to figure out we’re going to dramatically impact life on our planet.
So now that we all know it’s happening, what are we going to do about it? Especially you and me, I mean we’re just two people right? What can we do? We can, and need to do a lot. For one thing, we can become informed and stay informed. Spread the word and tell everyone you know. Raising awareness is a crucial step.
- You can sign up for the World Wildlife Fund’s newsletter to get the latest information and ways you can help. The WWF also has an Action Network with all kinds of ways you can get involved. Of course you can also donate money to those doing the work.
- The Endangered Species Coalition is a national network of organizations working on public education, scientific information and citizen participation. They have various ways you can help.
- The Center for Biological Diversity works through science, law and creative media, with a focus on protecting the lands, waters and climate that species need to survive.
These are just a few of the organizations you can learn from and participate with to help prevent this global crisis in our lifetimes. You can feel productive, like you are making a difference, doing something that really matters. I hope you’ll join me.