/ˌanTHrəpōˈjenik ikˈstiNG(k)SH(ə)n/ noun
Anthropogenic extinction, or the sixth extinction, is an ongoing extinction event mainly as a result of human activity.
Editor’s Note: At Outrider, we create in-depth content showcasing climate change impacts on our daily lives. In this Anthropocene series, we untangle the complex relationship between our species and our planet, the only home we have. Here we contemplate the role humanity is playing in current species extinctions.
Are humans causing species extinction? Yes. Can we reverse the trend? Yes. Will it be too late? TBD.
In the Anthropocene, humanity thrives at the expense of earth’s biodiversity. We have hunted wooly mammoths to extinction. We have cleared old growth forests for farming. We have melted the arctic ice. We have polluted our oceans with plastics. Our powerful impacts may become our own undoing.
Because of human-induced pressures, plants and animals are going extinct at 1,000 to 10,000 times the background extinction rate. This collapse of biodiversity undermines every ecological system on earth. And, because biodiversity is nature's main defense against extinction, we need to protect it, not endanger it.
But, all is not lost. Humans have two paths diverging before us—one towards a sixth mass extinction event or one towards a renewal of our planet. Taking the second path means we must understand the consequences of our human-centric actions, and we must cooperate to establish systems that better our world.
Deep Dive: Background Extinction Rate
The background extinction rate refers to how often extinctions naturally occurred before human activity impacted the natural world.
Although often hard to measure, the background extinction rate is commonly estimated that 1 to 5 species go extinct per year.
The most common way to measure the background extinction rate is by measuring how often species naturally went extinct in the fossil record.
Climate change is one of humanity's greatest impacts on our planet. Because of climate change causing greenhouse gas emissions we have altered Earth's temperature and weather conditions which causes species to go extinct. For example, the Bramble Cay Melomys is the first recorded species to go extinct due to climate change as its habitat was lost due to the rising waters of the Pacific Ocean.
Species Spotlight: Bramble Cay Melomys
It was a small rodent the size of a smartphone and no heavier than a tube of toothpaste. It is also the first mammal recorded to go extinct due to the impacts of human-induced climate change.
Bramble Cay Melomys lived in Bramble Cay, a small, isolated sandbar island between Papua New Guinea and Northern Australia.
Due to climate change, rising seas, and increased intensity of storm surges, no Bramble Cay Melomys has been found since 2007. The species was finally confirmed extinct in 2016.
Changes in temperature and weather conditions due to climate change force species to seek new places to survive. For example, in the northern Rocky Mountain of the United States, less snow cover in the wolverine's habitats has forced them to higher altitudes. This habitat-changing impact has reduced connected habitat ranges of critical snowpack. Also, increasing temperatures due to climate change are reducing snow cover in the spring for females to dig their birthing dens. Because of these human-induced pressures, wolverines have been classified as a threatened species since 2013.
Habitat loss poses the greatest threat to biodiversity. It is defined by the World Wildlife Federation as the main threat to 85% of all species. Habitat loss is the eradication of forests, swamps, or clearing land for agriculture and development. These human activities are pushing the wild closer to extinction and closer to humans. In fact, 50% of the Everglades disappeared by the early '90s and the entire ecosystem is forever altered. The Everglades is the world's largest continuous stand of sawgrass prairie, and its disappearance is ongoing.
Conservation and preservation reduce the impacts of humans in our environment. All species, including humans, benefit from protecting a wide range of critical habitats. National parks are amazing ecosystems that support and nurture important species as well as the local economy.
Pollution is the change in the environment caused by natural or artificial input of harmful contaminants.
Pollution may cause instability, disruption or harmful effects on the ecosystem. Examples of pollution in our environment include:
- Fossil fuel emissions (greenhouse gases)
- Agricultural runoff (fertilizers sprayed on plants)
- Urban runoff (leaves, heavy metals, motor oil)
- Radioactive materials (plutonium from nuclear weapon testing)
Pollution can persist in the environment for a very long time, and its effects are difficult to reverse. However, there are individual steps you can take to reduce pollution. These steps include using reusable bags, using efficient forms of transportation, and reducing food waste. Yet, governmental and industry regulations are the most efficient ways to stop pollution from getting into our environment. Through a strong commitment to preventing pollution, we can make our planet safer for all biodiversity including humans.
Single Use Plastics
Around a quarter of the carbon dioxide humanity emits ends up in our oceans. Here it forms carbonic acid, which increases the acidity of the water. This extra acid in the water reduces the amount of available life-giving building blocks used by species within coral reefs. Compared to pre-industrial times, surface ocean acidity has increased by about 30 percent. Australia's Great Barrier Reef is an iconic symbol of an ecosystem suffering from ocean acidification. Only 7% of the reef has not been impacted in any way by ocean acidification.
So, what are some solutions? Solutions to ocean acidification are closely tied to solutions to climate change. Using renewable energy sources and energy efficient behaviors to reduce carbon emissions as well as changing our diets to more plant-based food will help reduce ocean acidifications. Small individual actions lead to collective solutions.
Billions of people rely on fish for protein, and fishing is the principal livelihood for millions of people around the world. Unsustainable fishing occurs when the fish population cannot renew itself through natural reproduction. Gathering as many fish as possible may seem like a profitable practice, but overfishing has serious consequences. The results affect the balance of life in the oceans as well as the social and economic well-being of coastal communities.
For centuries, our seas and oceans have been a vast bounty of food. Yet, unsustainable fishing practices over the last 50 years have pushed fish populations and more than 30 percent of the world's fisheries to the brink of collapse. Implementing sustainable harvesting plans is essential to restoring this valuable resource. With smarter management systems, known as fishing rights, we can reverse the incentives that lead to overfishing. Under fishing rights, fishermen's interests are balanced with the health of the local fisheries.
Deep Dive: Fishing Rights
Rights given to fishermen to continue fishing in specific areas in exchange for their vow to stop fishing in protected zones to strengthen fish populations in these zones.
Their income depends on the prosperity of fish populations. Prior to the implementation of fishing rights, fishermen experienced a significant decrease of catches for their entire season.
What took 4 billion years to evolve is vanishing in the geologic blink of an eye. Humans live in a dangerous new reality—we have accelerated the process of extinction to unprecedented heights, and we continue to devastate the earth's biodiversity. Our unsustainable behaviors and choices ignore that very real fact that all species on earth are at risk.
Stopping the alarming rate of biodiversity loss isn’t mysterious. We can create a positive future for our planet by:
- Embracing clean energy sources
- Developing sustainable infrastructure
- Prioritizing wildlife conservation
- Championing environmental education
These are crucial first steps in staving off the planet’s sixth extinction event. Although by no means a silver bullet, these realistic solutions are achievable. We can secure biodiversity and humanity well into the Anthropocene through practical and collective solutions.