Global warming to result in extinctions

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

The current global hot flash could mean more than just a pissy mood for Mother Nature.

A UK study published this October in Proceedings of The Royal Society B. has linked past mass extinctions with global warming.

The research was the first to link temperature increases with biodiversity and extinction rates on a global scale, although past studies have looked at particular species and specific areas of the planet, said Dr. Peter Mayhew, a biology researcher at the University of York in York, England and one of the authors.

Mayhew wanted to address “a gap in knowledge that had to be filled.”

The project, entitled “A long-term association between global temperature and biodiversity, origination and extinction in the fossil record,” found relatively high temperatures correlated with low levels of biological diversity and high rates of extinction.

The scientists examined fossil records over the past 520 million years by looking at data points from 10 million year intervals.

Mayhew admitted a few instances, such as the first major glaciations, known as the Ordovician period, were exceptions to this rule. In this case, low temperatures caused sea levels to fall and brought on mass extinctions in aquatic animals.

Although the study found correlation rather than cause and effect, Mayhew said their conclusions could help predict the future.

“If you use the relationships we’ve discovered, the temperatures that are predicted from current global warming by the end of this century or beginning of next century will be similar to temperatures associated with mass extinction in the past.”

And the predicted temperature increases are not small.

The Canadian Atlas Online predicts the Earth’s temperature will increase by 3.7C by the end of the 22nd century.

Hugh Henry, assistant professor in the department of biology and plant and ecosystem ecologist, agreed the evidence could prove helpful.

“I think the more you can understand the mechanism of how the whole system works, the better you are to predict the future.”

Henry noted many people rely on fossil records and temperature cycles to downplay global warming.

He rebutted, “It often comes down to a question of a rate of change; [the rate of temperature increase] is much faster than anything we’ve ever seen.”

Professor Ross Gibbons, a professor in the field of environmental politics, hoped the study would encourage people to address current environmental issues.

“At the political level, we have to keep the pressure on.”

Gibbons agreed with Mayhew’s predictions for mass extinctions.

“When you have a species like the polar bears that depends on ice and [the ice] starts to disappear, then the possibility of extinction is certainly there.”

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