The Beginning of a New Mass Extinction?
Sun, April 18, 2021

The Beginning of a New Mass Extinction?

"We are at the beginning of a mass extinction." This is one of the most notable quotes from environmental activist Greta Thunberg that she has repeatedly cited in her speeches / Photo by: Anders Hellberg via Wikimedia Commons

 

"We are at the beginning of a mass extinction." This is one of the most notable quotes from environmental activist Greta Thunberg that she has repeatedly cited in her speeches. The thought of experiencing a mass extinction seems absurd in today's time, but recent reports may hold Thunberg's terrifying claim to be true.

A UN report published in May stated that species extinction rates are "accelerating" as biodiversity deteriorates faster than ever—with Hawaii and South Africa leading global species wipeout despite being biodiversity hotspots and among the world's megadiverse countries.

Unlike previous extinctions, the upcoming die-off event is driven by human actions that are disrupting natural ecosystems. But since it is different from past wipeout events, the so-called sixth mass extinction can be averted.

 

Unprecedented Biodiversity Decline

Human actions are the main driving force in the rapid deterioration of ecosystems. In the UN report, about a million animals and species are at a higher risk of extinction today than ever before in human history.

Since 1900, native species in most major terrestrial habitats have dropped by 20 percent while over a third of all marine mammals are threatened. Among them include:

• over 40 percent of amphibian species
• nearly 33 percent of reef-forming corals
• about 10 percent of insect species
• at least 1,000 domesticated breeds of mammals used for food and agriculture

Human actions are the main driving force in the rapid deterioration of ecosystems. In the UN report, about a million animals and species are at a higher risk of extinction today than ever before in human history / Photo by: Georgy Dzyura via 123RF

 

Human actions have also altered 75 percent of the land-based environment and about 66 percent of the marine environment. These changes have led to over a third of the world’s land surface and nearly 75 percent of water resources being used for crop or livestock production.

Loss of intact ecosystems was mainly observed in the tropics, the UN report said, as agricultural expansion into these systems varies from country to country. For instance, Latin America saw a loss of 100 million hectares of tropical forest due to cattle ranching while plantations in Southeast Asia resulted in the loss of about 7.5 million hectares of tropical land.

These were just some of the notable findings of the report, which—for the first time—ranked the direct drivers of change in nature with the largest relative global impacts so far: changes in land and sea use; direct exploitation of organisms; climate change; pollution; and invasive alien species.

Leading Global Extinctions

Plant species are also going extinct, with 571 of them having already disappeared since 1750. Some plant extinction is normal and not all wipeout events can be attributed to human actions. But the number of these extinctions has significantly risen following the industrial revolution.

According to Earth.com, die-off events of plant species are now 500 times greater than ever before and Hawaii and South Africa are leading the global plant extinctions, according to Earth.com, a news and information provider that focuses on nature, science, and the environment.

In 300 years, 79 plant species were confirmed to have gone extinct in some of South Africa's biodiversity hotspots. There are about 20,000 plant species in the said country, but the confirmed number of extinctions represents a large percentage of South Africa's plant biodiversity.

Earth.com stated that this loss in biodiversity is 45.4 percent of all recorded plant extinctions from the top biodiversity hotspots in the world. Urbanization and human development are seen as the causes for these wipeouts, specifically those that occurred as recently as 2012 when a rare vygie species went extinct.

Hawaii is also seen as a global leader in plant extinction, showing a high number of die-offs compared to South Africa. Out of the 1,400 taxa plants found there, over a hundred have succumbed to extinction. The loss of one species in an area can lead to more losses and even if extinctions don't have cascading effects, they still indicate a problem that may lead to more similar events.

Global Deal for Nature

The fact that the sixth mass extinction is not due to natural phenomena means it is still avoidable. Greg Asner, director at the Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science and a professor, together with colleagues, laid out a "road map for simultaneously averting a sixth mass extinction and reducing climate change."

In his article on The Conversation, a not-for-profit media outlet, Asner said their plan—known as the Global Deal for Nature—would immediately protect at least 30 percent of Earth's surface to halt rapid biodiversity loss along with another 20 percent of ecosystems that can absorb large amounts of carbon in the atmosphere. "In our view, biodiversity loss and climate change must be addressed as one interconnected problem with linked solutions," the researcher said.

The deal was based on a map of approximately a thousand “ecoregions” on land and sea, each of which is home to various species and ecosystems and has a crucial role in curbing climate change. Asner noted that conserving large areas of Earth to protect biodiversity is "not new." In fact, many experts suggested setting aside half the surface of the Earth for biodiversity conservation. "The Global Deal for Nature greatly advances this idea by specifying the amounts, places, and types of protection needed to get this effort moving in the right direction," the director added.

The fact that the sixth mass extinction is not due to natural phenomena means it is still avoidable / Photo by: Viacheslav Iakobchuk via 123RF