Climate change may already have contributed significantly to previous mass extinctions on Earth. There was an excellent article in Scientific American which discussed exactly this. It states, “global warming is consistently associated with planetwide die-offs” (see full article, first link below). The article featured a study which examined specifically the end Permian extinction, which took place approximately 251 million years ago. In the period examined, the study noticed three significant “greenhouse phases” in which mass extinctions coincided with peaks in temperature.
The article goes on to say that this “bodes ill for the fate of species currently on Earth as the global temperatures continue to rise to levels similar to those seen during the Permian”. This is not to say that climate change alone causes mass extinctions, or that mass extinctions only come about because of climate change. The correlation does seem to exist, however, and often enough to be of some concern. For more information I would recommend the Scientific American article, it’s quite incisive.
Climate change definately has the ability to cause a mass extinction of humans if you are looking for the ultimate – rather than proximate – causes behind an extinction scenario. For the most part, scientist remain uncetain about the severity of our current “global warming” situation and the possible extent of the reprocussions but it is not hard to see that all systems on this planet; geological, biologica, and chemical are all interconnected and that a change in one affects the others in turn.
Here is a an over-simlified example: By now, everyone should know that we are all dependent on the natural processes and functions of the oceans for food and seafaring and sink functions and weather cycles etc. Well, if the ice caps are melting at the rate we have determined and are continuing to do so, the melted ice will add billions of gallons of new, cold water to the ocean, over time raising sea level, altering current flows (in turn disrupting animal migration patterns), and possibly changing sea temperature and pH, permanently altering those natural processes which we rely upon.
Just to be technical, you can’t have a “mass extinction” of only one species. A mass extinction is an event in which a significant portion of all SPECIES on earth becomes extinct. In the past, there have been extinctions from anywhere between 30% to over half of all genera dying out. The Permian-Triassic extinction was particularly brutal, killing over 90% of all ocean species and 50% of all land species.
Chillingly, as hovers pointed out, global warming was probably a key player in the Permian-Triassic extinction. Whatever is about to happen to our biosphere as a result of man-made global warming, it’s certainly not going to be good.
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