MIT professor predicts when the world's next mass extinction could occur

22 September, 2017, 19:26 | Author: Patsy Dennis
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"In the past, such periods of instability led to mass extinctions", said Rothman.

Many scientists have concluded that the planet has already entered a sixth mass extinction.

The carbon emissions are mainly responsible for such mass extinctions and have increased significantly in the 19th century. "But how that process plays out remains unknown", the paper said.

He defined "Thresholds of catastrophe" as the limit in the Earth's carbon cycle which is capable of telling how stable the environment is. "It is saying that, if left unchecked, the carbon cycle would move into a realm which would be no longer stable, and would behave in a way that would be hard to predict", Rotham added. Well, it's tricky. Rothman says our current conditions will lead to crossing the threshold suppose the carbon amount in Earth's oceans hits 310 gigatons.

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He eventually derived a simple mathematical formula based on basic physical principles that relates the critical rate and magnitude of change in the carbon cycle to the timescale that separates fast from slow change.

By the year 2100, about 310 gigatons of carbon will have been added to the oceans - a potential "tipping point" for ecological disaster, according to the study. Of course, this is only one view of how the global scenario may be realized, and Rothman pretends that he has all the answers, but he hopes that even this will force humanity to think.

From this, he constructed a database to assess how much carbon mass was pumped into the world's oceans in each historical event. "In the geologic past, this type of behavior is associated with mass extinction". He plotted both the mass and timescale of each event.

In other words, unless humanity does something to drastically turn around our carbon situation - and there's cause for real optimism on that front, friends - we could lock in a risky extermination.

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Compared to marine carbon accumulation in the past, Rothman found that marine carbon concentrations are increasing at a much more rapid pace today. But that threshold was crossed four times, corresponding to four of the five worst mass extinctions. It's a system that balances the chemical output of photosynthesis - plants' primary means of making energy - and respiration - the mechanism that animals and other complex life uses. Normally, there is a "leak" in the cycle, in which a small amount of organic carbon sinks to the ocean bottom and, over time, is buried as sediment and sequestered from the rest of the carbon cycle.

The other case occurs on a much shorter timescale, where an vast shift in carbon volumes moving through the carbon cycle happens in the space of say, decades and years.

The best-case scenario projects that humans will add 300 gigatons of carbon to the oceans by 2100, while more than 500 gigatons will be added under the worst-case scenario, far exceeding the critical threshold.

Over the past few hundred years, humans have been dredging up a lot of that excess carbon in the form of fossil fuels, and pumping it back out into the atmosphere.

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The findings are reported in Science Advances.


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