TIME Environment

The Sixth Great Extinction Is Underway—and We’re to Blame

Goodbye to all that: millions of earth's species, like the white rhino, are no match for the one species that considers itself the smartest
Goodbye to all that: millions of Earth's species, like the white rhino, are no match for the one species that considers itself the smartest Getty Images

The Earth has been stripped of up to 90% of its species five times before in the past 450 million years. Now it's happening again—and this time there's no rogue asteroid responsible

Here’s hoping the human species likes its own company, because at the rate Earth is going, we might be the only ones we’ve got left.

Nobody can say with certainty how many species there are on Earth, but the number runs well into the millions. Many of them, of course, are on the order of bacteria and spores. The other ones, the ones we can see and count and interact with—to say nothing of the ones we like—are far fewer. And, according to a new and alarming series of papers in Science, their numbers are falling fast, thanks mostly to us.

One of the first great rules of terrestrial biology is that no species is forever. The Earth has gone through five major extinction events before—from the Ordovician-Silurian, about 350 million years ago, to the Cretaceous-Paleogene, 65 million years back. The likely causes included volcanism, gamma ray bursts, and, in the case of the Cretaceous-Paleogene wipeout, an asteroid strike—the one that killed the dinosaurs. But the result of all of the extinctions was the same: death, a lot of it, for 70% to 90% of all species, depending on the event.

As increasingly accepted theories have argued—and as the Science papers show—we are now in the midst of the sixth great extinction, the unsettlingly-named Anthropocene, or the age of the humans.

The numbers are sobering: Over all, there has been a human-driven decline in the populations of all species by 25% over the past 500 years, but not all groups have suffered equally. Up to a third of all species of vertebrates are now considered threatened, as are 45% of most species of invertebrates. Among the vertebrates, amphibians are getting clobbered, with 41% of species in trouble, compared to just 17% of birds—at least so far. The various orders of insects suffer differently too: 35% of Lepidopteran species are in decline (goodbye butterflies), which sounds bad enough, but it’s nothing compared to the similar struggles of nearly 100% of Orthoptera species (crickets, grasshoppers and katydids, look your last).

As the authors of all this loss, we are doing our nasty work in a lot of ways. Overexploitation—which is to say killing animals for food, clothing or the sheer perverse pleasure of it—plays a big role, especially among the so-called charismatic megafauna. So we get elephants slaughtered for their tusks, rhinos poached for their horns and tigers shot and skinned for their pelts, until oops—no more elephants, rhinos or tigers.

Habitat destruction is another big driver, particularly in rainforests, where 25,000 miles (75,000 km) of tree cover are lost annually—the equivalent of denuding one Panama per year, year after year. And you don’t even have to chop or burn an ecosystem completely away to threaten its species; sometimes all it takes is cutting a few roads across it or building a few farms or homes in the wrong spots. Environmental fragmentation like this can be more than sufficient to cut species off from food or water, to say nothing of mates, and start them in a downward spiral that becomes irreversible.

Then too there is global warming, which makes once-hospitable habitats too hot or dry or stormy for species adapted to different conditions. Finally, as TIME’s Bryan Walsh wrote in last week’s cover story, there are invasive species—pests like the giant African snail, the lionfish or the emerald ash borer—which hitch a ride into a new ecosystem on ships or packing material, or are brought in as pets, and then reproduce wildly, crowding out native species.

The result of all this species loss—what the Science researchers dub defaunation—goes far beyond simply leaving us with a less rich, less diverse world. After all, the Earth bounced back from far worse extinctions and did just fine. But it bounced back a different way each time, and the most recent version, the one in which we emerged, is the one we like—and it’s easy to destroy.

Loss of species, the authors point out, means loss of pollinators—which is a real problem since 75% of food crops rely on insects if they’re going to thrive. Nutrient cycles—the decomposition of organic matter that feeds the soil—collapse if mobile species can’t get from place to place and do their living and dying in a fairly even distribution. The same is true for water quality, which relies on all manner of animals to prevent lakes and rivers and streams from becoming too algae-dense or oxygen poor. Pest control suffers as well — when animals like bats are no longer around the eat the insect pests that attack crops, it’s bad news for autumn harvests. North America alone is projected to suffer $22 billion in agricultural losses as desirable bat populations continue to decline.

It oughtn’t take appealing to our self-interest to get us to quit making such a mess of what we’re increasingly coming to learn is an exceedingly destructible world. But it’s that very self-interest that led us to make that mess in the first place. We can either start to change our ways, or we can keep going the way we are—at least until the Anthropocene extinction claims one final species: our own.

TIME Environment

Only 1/3 of Americans ‘Willing’ to Change Behavior for Environment

As Michael Grunwald noted in his piece on TIME’s recent energy poll, Americans lag far behind other nations in their willingness to help the environment. Here, only 33% of Americans say they “strongly agree” they would modify their behavior to reduce their carbon footprint, compared to 43% of people from other countries.

Americans Take Less Responsibility For Clean Energy

 

For more stories on the New Energy Reality, click here.

TIME energy

Obama Approves Sonic Cannons to Map Atlantic for Offshore Oil and Gas

Offshore drilling in the Atlantic is up for debate
The Atlantic offshore territory has been off limits to U.S. oil drilling, but that could change Brasil2 via Getty Images

Over environmental objections, the Obama Administration moves forward with exploration that could yield new domestic oil and gas sources

The Obama administration reopened part of the Eastern seaboard Friday to offshore oil and gas exploration, promising to boost job creation in the energy sector while at the same time fueling the fears of environmental groups.

The U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) estimates that 4.72 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 37.51 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas lies beneath the coast from Florida to Maine. The recent decision allows exploration from Florida to Delaware and could create thousands of new jobs supporting expanded energy infrastructure along the East Coast.

“Offshore energy exploration and production in the Atlantic could bring new jobs and higher revenues to states and local communities, while adding to our country’s capabilities as an energy superpower,” American Petroleum Institute upstream director Erik Milito said in a statement.

Environmentalists worry about damage to shorelines, and to the tourist industry. They also worry about the safety of ocean wildlife. The exploration will initially be conducted via seismic surveys that use sonic cannons to locate oil and gas deposits beneath the ocean floor. The cannons emit sound waves louder than a jet engine every ten seconds for weeks at a time.

“We’re definitely concerned,” Hamilton Davis, energy and climate change director for the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League, told TIME. “The exploration activities lead in the direction of actual development of oil and gas, and from our perspective as a coastal organization that worries about our environmental ecological landscape as well as our [tourism] economy, the oil and gas industry certainly doesn’t seem to fit into that equation. Just the impacts from exploration activities on marine wildlife I think would give most people pause… You’re talking about hundreds of thousands of animals that will be negatively impacted as a consequence of these activities.”

BOEM said it approved the seismic surveys with the environment in mind. “After thoroughly reviewing the analysis, coordinating with Federal agencies and considering extensive public input, the bureau has identified a path forward that addresses the need to update the nearly four-decade-old data in the region while protecting marine life and cultural sites,” said Acting BOEM Director Walter D. Cruickshank in a statement.

Sonic cannons are already used in the western Gulf of Mexico and off the coast of Alaska, but many constituents and elected officials in the newly opened East Coast territory have expressed their concerns about the testing and eventual drilling. Congressional officials from Florida, including Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Orlando, and Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, signed a letter to President Obama opposing the decision.

“Expanding unnecessary drilling offshore simply puts too much at risk. Florida has more coastline than any other state in the continental United States and its beaches and marine resources support the local economy across the state,” the letter states.

The area to be mapped is in federal waters, not under the jurisdiction of state law. Energy companies will apply for drilling leases in 2018, when current congressional limits expire.

 

TIME climate

June Was Hottest on Record, NOAA Says

Temperatures Soar To Highest Of The Year
A giant plastic ice cream cone glints in the sun on the South Beach Peter Macdiarmid—Getty Images

May was the hottest on record, too

Not only did 2014 boast the hottest May on record, but new data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says that the global population experienced its hottest June ever, too.

Well, at least this summer is keeping things consistent.

According to the NOAA, the combined average temperatures of land and ocean surfaces was 1.30°F above the 20th century average of 59.9°F. If only looking at land surface temperature, though, it was only the seventh highest June on record.

Anomalies are now becoming less of an anomaly as nine of the ten warmest Junes recorded occurred in the 21st century, including every June in the last five years.

TIME Environment

The 5 Worst Invasive Species in the Florida Everglades

A most wanted list for alien pests in the Sunshine State

As I write in a cover story in TIME this week, invasive species are a growing threat around the U.S. And there’s no place quite as thoroughly invaded as Florida:

“We are ground zero for the impacts of invasive species,” says Doria Gordon, director of conservation science for the Florida chapter of the Nature Conservancy (TNC) . “And our invaders are very good at finding new habitats.”

Often those habitats are in or around the Everglades, that vast “river of grass” that covers much of South Florida. Half of the original Everglades has been developed for farming or housing, and the sprawling wetland has been carved up by more than 1,400 miles (2,250 km) of canals and levees that divert water for South Florida’s 5.8 million people. That mix of suburbs and wilderness makes the Everglades an invasive free-for-all.

But which invasive species pose the biggest threats to the Everglades? Check out the video above

 

TIME Environment

How to Catch a Python, in Five (Sort of) Easy Steps

The inelegant art of hunting an invasive snake

“Fear is a natural reaction.” That’s what the dangerous-animal expert Jeff Fobb told me stood in the backyard of his house in Homestead, Florida, waiting to tangle with a Burmese python. Fobb was right—even though Burmese pythons don’t really pose a threat to human beings, there’s something about the way a snake slithers, the way the muscles under the sheen of its scales ripple, that seems to strike a bell in the human amgydala. Almost as scary: the fact that there may be tens of thousands of invasive pythons slithering around the state of Florida.

But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to catch a python—provided you can find it. Here’s how:

TIME Environment

The Volunteer Army Hunting Florida’s Invasive Pythons

Finding an invasive python in the wild is difficult, which is why you need a volunteer army

As I write in TIME’s cover story this week, Burmese pythons invaded Florida years ago, and they’ve thrived in the warm tropical climate. There may be tens of thousands of pythons slithering around south Florida, but the truth is that no one really knows. That’s because when they don’t want to be found—which is most of the time—Burmese pythons are all but impossible to locate. At a 2013 state-sponsored hunt, nearly 1,600 participants found and captured just 68 pythons. “For every one snake you’ll find, you can walk by at least 99 without seeing them,” says Michael Dorcas, a snake expert at Davidson College.

But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Just ask experts like Jeff Fobb, a dangerous-animal specialist with Miami Dade County Fire Rescue department. Fobb helps train volunteers for the Python Patrol, an initiative begun by the Nature Conservancy and now run by the state of Florida. Training as many people as possible improves the chances of actually capturing a python when one is found. But it’s not always easy, as this video shows.

To see the full cover story click here: Invasive Species Coming to a Habitat Near You

TIME animals

Five Species That Are Quietly Dying Off While Nobody Pays Attention

Indonesian Sanctuary Helps To Save The Slow Loris From Extinction
A slow loris in its cage at a sanctuary for the endangered animals, which have been confiscated from individuals or markets that illegally sell them as pets, on February 27, 2014 in Bogor, Indonesia. Ed Wray—Getty Images

They're vanishing fast, but the world is paying scant attention

Everyone knows that rhinos or pandas are threatened with extinction. But there are plenty of species slipping away silently, without celebrity advocates or high-profile campaigns. “So many species are just not popular enough, or well-known enough to share the spotlight with the world’s threatened megafauna,” says Chris Shepherd, director of conservation group Traffic South East Asia.

The problem is that while threats facing the icons of conservation — such as the gorilla or elephant — are wholly deserving of media attention, this leaves less page space and air time for scores of other, sometimes more endangered, species. And if there’s no public attention paid to them, funds don’t materialize and the impetus for legal protection is weakened.

The plight of the following five species is two-fold: their disappearance is happening fast, and it’s happening off-radar.

1. Seahorses

Population trend: A 50%-80% global population decline in the past 20 years according to the Seahorse Trust.

All 38 species of this shy creature are, like many species, facing threats on several fronts. They live in coastal waters, leaving them vulnerable to habitat loss from human development and indiscriminate trawling. There’s also a unsustainably high demand in traditional Chinese medicine for seahorses, which are used to alleviate kidney ailments and circulatory problems. According to the Seahorse Trust, 150 million seahorses are used in Chinese medicine each year. The home aquarium trade, the trust says, is responsible for another million or so annually.

Seahorses remain on the now ten-year-old Appendix II to the internationally recognized Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) — a categorization that allows for regulated trade. But while 25 million seahorses are legally traded yearly, it’s estimated that further 125 million enter the black market. So far this year, Hong Kong customs have intercepted over 1,000 lbs of undeclared, smuggled dried seahorses, worth about $130,000. This level of capture and commercial trade is leading to a collapse in seahorse sightings. In 2011, the Centre of Marine Science at the University of Algarve, Portugal, reported a 85% reduction of long-snouted seahorses and 56% for other species that occur in the region.

“CITES listings should have all seahorse species down as highly endangered and at risk of extinction,” says Neil Garrick-Maidment, executive director of The Seahorse Trust. “There should, without a doubt, be a complete moratorium on seahorse fishing for 10 years.”

2. Sun bears

Population trend: The IUCN estimates that sun bears have decreased by 30% in the past 30 years.

Sun bears are traditionally found in much of Southeast Asia – from Bangladesh across to Yunnan, China and down to Borneo, Malaysia — but have become regionally extinct in much of the region, including Singapore and parts of China. The reason is a rapidly disappearing habitat, since vast swathes of lowland forest are being cleared – legally and not – for commercial monoculture cultivation, particularly palm oil.

In what forest remains to them, they are hunted by poachers who are after the bear’s paws and gall bladder, both of which fetch a high price on the black market – the former as a culinary delicacy, and the latter due to alleged medicinal properties when treating gall stones, inflammation, pain and liver troubles. “Numerous bears observed in bear bile farms, or on camera trap photos are missing limbs due to snares,” says Shepherd, who adds that China, South Korea, Vietnam and Malaysia are where demand is highest for bear bile.

Sun bears are listed in CITES Appendix I, which only permits regulated noncommercial trade (such as trade for scientific research, for example). But despite this degree of protection, “sun bears face tremendous pressures from illegal hunting and trade” according to Kanitha Krishnasamy, senior program officer, Traffic South East Asia. “Few people know of the threats this species faces, and fewer care,” adds Shepherd. “There are only a handful of people working to save the sun bear, all of them with inadequate amounts of funding, low levels of government support, and very little support from the public.”

3. Freshwater turtles and tortoises

Population trend: Decline in turtle and tortoise populations in Asia over the past decade has been so sharp it has a name: the Asian Turtle Crisis.

Distinct species of tortoises and freshwater turtles occur in low densities across the globe, each with characteristics adapted for specialized habitats. The Roti Island Snake-necked Turtle, for example, has a 20cm long neck and was endemic to Roti Island in Indonesia when it was discovered in the 90s. Now it’s critically endangered. Sadly, its story rings true for many of the 31 turtle and tortoise species now considered critically endangered by the IUCN, and there is one major cause – illegal trade in the creatures as pets and as food.

Although habitat loss and water pollution are a serious threat to these fascinating reptiles, it’s their meat and ornate shells that put them in real danger. As South East Asia becomes more affluent, the demand for these species has skyrocketed, On May 14, 230 Black Spotted Turtles were discovered by Thai Customs in unclaimed bags from Kolkata at Bangkok’s Suvanabhumi International Airport. Conservationists say that current levels of demand mean that many species do not have a hope of survival.

4 Slow lorises

Population trend: Four of the five subspecies – found between Bangladesh and China, down to Indonesia and the Philippines – have experienced a 30% population decline in the past 25 years. The Javan slow loris, meanwhile, has declined by 80% over the same time period, and is considered critically endangered.

The decline in the populations of these lemur-like primates has traditionally been related to rampant habitat loss as the jungles are cleared or agriculture such as commercial cashew and palm oil plantations and rice paddies. This has forced slow lorises into gardens, settlements and farmlands, where it encounters a even greater threat to its survival: its desirability as a “cute,” exotic pet.

A quick YouTube search reveals many slow loris videos, many with several million views that have been a disastrously successful marketing tool, despite all species being listed under CITES Appendix 1 in 2007. Lorises are still routinely spotted in markets in Jakarta, Hanoi and Kuala Lumpur by conservation organisations such as Small Carnivore Conservation Project in Thailand, which saw lorises in a Jakarta market as recently as mid-June.

The underground trade in lorises is harmful on many levels. Individual lorises often cannot survive the stresses of capture and transport, where they are stuffed in boxes, sacks or suitcases and shipped as far as Russia, Japan and the United States. If they are to be sold, their venomous incisors must be pulled, resulting in infection and often death. They also do not fare well in captivity, and excessive handling, forced daytime activity and poor diet lead to high mortality rates.

5. Dugongs

Population trend: In Queensland, Australia, catch rates – a major population indicator – for dugongs in 1999 were just 3% of what they were in 1962, in an area that is considered a relative safe haven for the ‘sea cows’.

Dugongs have a traditional range spanning the waters of 48 countries and 140,000km of coastline – from the East African coast and Madagascar through the Middle East and Indian coasts down to Australia and Papua New Guinea. But they are now only found in relict populations, separated by large spans of ocean. Dugongs have been declared extinct in the waters of Taiwan, Mauritius and the Maldives, and studies indicate that in former ‘strongholds’ such as the Thai Andaman sea, Philippine archipelago and Sri Lanka, colonies of less than 100 individuals struggle to get by.

Dugong survival is hugely dependent on the availability of seagrass, and the fact is the species is suffering a chronic, and worsening, food shortage. Net entanglement, vessel traffic and socio-political impediments to conservation efforts also play a part, but it’s the pollution of coastal waters and consequent seagrass loss that is the biggest problem for these sensitive beasts. Trawling, mining, dredging, coastal clearing and land reclamation lead to an increase in sedimentation, smothering the seagrass of sunlight vital for its growth. Sewage, agricultural herbicide runoff and heavy metals also lead to a degradation in seagrasses, which can take over a decade to recover.

This, when considered in combination with their slow reproductive rates, spells disaster. Females give birth to just one calf at a time, with a two-to-seven year period between pregnancies. Lack of public awareness and pressure is a key restricting factor to dugong survival, according to UNEP: “for management to be effective, the general public has to be concerned about dugong conservation,” – a point that is vitally relevant to so many quietly disappearing species.

TIME Science

This Eerie Hole Opened Up at the ‘End of the World’

Crater appeared on the Yamal peninsula in northern Russia

Helicopters spotted this mysterious hole in northern Russia on Tuesday and scientists are on their way to investigate the scene, reports the Siberian Times.

The hole—estimated to be over 250ft wide—is located in the Yamal peninsula, a region affectionately meaning the “end of the world.” One scientist speculates that global warming in conjunction with natural gas lines may have caused the yawning cavity in the earth.

Anna Kurchatova from Siberia’s Sub-Arctic Scientific Research Centre believes the crater was a result of an explosion when a mixture of water, salt and natural gas exploded underground. Global warming, she claims, has caused the permafrost in Siberia to melt at an accelerated rate, placing stress on the natural gas reserves.

Yamal authorities are visiting the hole along with two scientists from the Centre for the Study of the Arctic and one from the Cryosphere Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

[Siberian Times]

 

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