The Earth’s sixth mass extinction is here, and humans are to blame.

The Earth’s Sixth Mass Extinction is Here—and Humans are to Blame

The Earth’s Sixth Mass Extinction is Here—and Humans are to Blame

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June 21 2015 11:59 AM

The Earth’s Sixth Mass Extinction is Here—and Humans are to Blame

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A park ranger walks ahead of a nothern white female rhinoceros named Najin and a companion southern-white female at Ol Pejeta Conservancy, some 290 kms north of the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, on January 27, 2015. Najin is one of only five members of the sub-species left on the planet, three of which reside at Ol Pejeta Conservancy.

Photo by TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images

The Earth’s sixth mass extinction is upon us—and it’s all our fault. The last time there was a mass extinction event was sixty-five million years ago, when dinosaurs disappeared off the face of the planet thanks to an asteroid. Now we’re the equivalent of the asteroid, pushing animal species toward disappearance at a rate that is as much as 100 times higher than normal, according to a recently published study that came up with “probably the most robust estimate yet of how severe the modern crisis is,” notes the Guardian.

The evidence is incontrovertible that recent extinction rates are unprecedented in human history and highly unusual in Earth’s history. Our analysis emphasizes that our global society has started to destroy species of other organisms at an accelerating rate, initiating a mass extinction episode unparalleled for 65 million years.
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The key to the study that was published in the journal Science Advances is that the authors took pains to be conservative in order to prevent people from calling them “alarmists” So the problem is likely much worse. According to their conservative assumptions, the authors concluded that some 477 vertebrate species have gone extinct since 1900. Without humans, that number would have been nine, according to the study. “The number of species that have gone extinct in the last century would have taken … between 800 and 10,000 years to disappear,” notes the study. “These estimates reveal an exceptionally rapid loss of biodiversity over the last few centuries, indicating that a sixth mass extinction is already under way.”

According to the study, 75 percent of the Earth’s species could be lost in the span of two generations, notes CNN. “We are on the trajectory of seeing a mass extinction in two human lifetimes if we just keep doing business as usual,” Anthony Barnosky, a paleontologist in UC Berkeley’s integrative biology department and one of the authors of the study, tells the Los Angeles Times.

Humans won’t be spectators to the phenomenon but rather victims as well. "If it is allowed to continue, life would take many millions of years to recover and our species itself would likely disappear early on," lead author Gerardo Ceballos of the Universidad Autonoma de Mexico tells AFP.

So is it all lost? The authors of the study appeared to have made an effort to sound remotely upbeat, making clear that while the situation is dire something can still be done to reverse the ongoing process. “Avoiding a true sixth mass extinction will require rapid, greatly intensified efforts to conserve already threatened species and to alleviate pressures on their populations—notably habitat loss, overexploitation for economic gain, and climate change,” the authors write. But time is of the essence: “The window of opportunity is rapidly closing.”

Daniel Politi has been contributing to Slate since 2004 and wrote the Today’s Papers column from 2006 to 2009. Follow him on Twitter.