Throwback Thursday: The 6th Mass Extinction – 15th May 2013

I’m going to assume that at some point in your life you have seen one in a multitude of Hollywood disaster movies charting the mass extinction of species on the planet. These range from Deep Impact in 1998, War of The Worlds in 1953 to the extreme environmental changes posed in 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow. These films show what I would call traditional perceptions of mass extinctions as a large scale event takes place very quickly i.e. the Asteroid in Deep Impact or the dramatic climate swing in The Day After Tomorrow, but the so called 6th Mass extinction isn’t anything so flashy. This new potential mass extinction has been going on quietly ever since humanity started spreading across the globe with extinction rates increasing through time as a direct response of human activities. Just by taking a look at the IUCN Species Red List and the number of endangered species it is enough to realise that something big is underway. When I had a look today there were 5919 species on the endangered list most of which are plants (2655) and occur most in Forest biomes (2595).

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It’s getting warm down here

The Earth is getting hot. A 1⁰C temperature rise has been recorded on almost every monitoring site on the globe. With the Paris Climate Summit ongoing how has this 1⁰C, half of the proposed 2⁰C warming limit, gone under the radar?

In the light of the Paris Climate Summit I think it’s important to make note of an article written in the New Scientist back in August. This article “Earth Now Halfway to Warming Limit” reported that the Earth is already halfway towards the warming limit of 2⁰C that was outlined in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) climate assessments. According to the New Scientist article all but one surface monitoring station is recording a one degree Celsius rise relative to the second half of the 19th Century. The first half of the 19th century isn’t used as a baseline temperature set because of an abnormally cold climate period known as the Little Ice Age but also because of significant gaps in climate records in this period. The latter half of the 19th century isn’t a perfect start for the record either because of the Krakatoa eruption in 1883 which led to generally cooler temperatures in the following years due to the large amounts of aerosols released into the atmosphere. This aside, the latter half of the 19th century is probably the best example of a complete climate record as close to the start of the industrial revolution as possible.

This year’s El Nino event could lead to a warming of 0.1⁰C in 2015, a record amount of warming in just one year. Yet, let’s not get too jumpy just yet. The general trend in warming has been a slowing from 0.26⁰C a decade between 1984 and 1998 to 0.4⁰C a decade between 1998 and 2012. This slowing in warming has been accounted for by an increase in aerosol production from volcanic activity and Asian factories but also due to a less active sun. Less solar flares, coronal mass ejections and other activity has led some scientists to believe that the sun may be shifting into a less active state (known as solar minima) after reaching peak activity in 2012-2013. The Ocean too has contributed to this slowdown in warming thanks to a phenomenon known as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation in which the northern Pacific switches between a warm and cold phase. The Northern Pacific has been in its cold state allowing it to absorb more thermal energy from the atmosphere but this is now expected to flip back into a warm state and therefore become less efficient at absorbing heat energy. This could lead to an acceleration of warming in the next few years similar to that, or perhaps larger than that, of the 1980s.

Why Science?

Science as it is traditionally thought about is a quest for answers that sates an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. Yet, I see science in a different light. Paradoxically, by finding out more we in fact to come to realise how little we actually know. I see science as the quest for questions rather than answers. Let me demonstrate this. Imagine a dark room, whatever is in this room is shrouded in darkness and unknown to us. Now, shine a spotlight into this room that only illuminates a small area of this unknown space, this lit area is what we know. The circumference of this lit area is surrounded by a darkness that we know about, this darkness is the things we know we don’t know about. Beyond this circumference are the things we are unable to see. In fact, we don’t even know that we don’t know about this space. It is not observable. These are the unknown, unknowns. By finding the answers to those known unknowns at the circumference we can expand our knowledge and thus the lit area grows. However, as an area grows in size so too does a shapes circumference. Therefore the more we find out about the world the more we come to realise how little we actually know. This isn’t a negative process though, as we push forward the boundaries of knowledge so too do we diminish the area left for unknown unknowns to exist. Thus science, to me, is more about discovering the questions rather than the answers. It is only by asking the right questions that the veil of darkness surrounding us can be pushed back and our understanding of the world can become more complete.

“As our circle of knowledge expands, so too does the circumference of darkness surrounding it” – Albert Einstein