There’s been many jokes and memes about 2020 and its single-minded propensity for death and destruction. But a worrying new study makes it clear that coronavirus, locust attacks and cyclones are just some of the few things we’re battling. The study, published on June 1 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, has found that the sixth mass extinction in earth’s history is rapidly accelerating. And it’s humans who are to blame for it.
Gerardo Ceballos González, a professor of ecology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and one of the authors of the study, said approximately 173 species went extinct between 2001 and 2014. “There are 515 species on the brink (1.7% of the evaluated vertebrates),” the study said. “Around 94% of the populations of 77 mammal and bird species on the brink have been lost in the last century.” Ceballos González told The New York Times that this means “every year over the last century we lost the same number of species typically lost in 100 years.” In a statement not common in a scientific journal, the authors went beyond science to say that it was a “moral imperative” for humans to take action now.
“The ongoing sixth mass extinction may be the most serious environmental threat to the persistence of civilization because it is irreversible,” says a press release by the Centre for Biological Diversity, explaining the study. “Thousands of populations of critically endangered vertebrate animal species have been lost in a century, indicating that the sixth mass extinction is human-caused and accelerating. The acceleration of the extinction crisis is certain because of the still fast growth in human numbers and consumption rates.”
The authors of the study estimate that one-fifth of all species are in danger of extinction by midcentury, and half or more by 2100, if governments don’t take action to stop extinction. "Based on our research and what we're seeing, the extinction crisis is so bad that whatever we do in the next 10 to 50 years is what will define the future of humanity,” said Ceballos to BBC News.
As humans continue to encroach on land and wildlife, the loss of some species will have a domino effect on all other species, including humans too. “Human pressures on the biosphere are growing rapidly, and a recent example is the current coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic,” says the study. This extinction would happen in phases, with the species on the brink of extinction to likely be extinct soon. This would trigger the collapse of regional biodiversity in regions with high human impacts, breeding further extinction of other species.
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