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Global Extinction: Gradual Doom as Bad as Abrupt

Posted on 20 February 2012 by John Hartz

This is a reprint of a press release posted by the National Science Foundation on Feb 3, 2012.

In "The Great Dying" 250 million years ago, the end came slowly

Photo of Griesbach Creek in the Arctic.

The geology of Griesbach Creek in the Arctic tells an ancient tale of slow extinction.
Credit and Larger Version

The deadliest mass extinction of all took a long time to kill 90 percent of Earth's marine life--and it killed in stages--according to a newly published report.

It shows that mass extinctions need not be sudden events.

Thomas Algeo, a geologist at the University of Cincinnati, and 13 colleagues have produced a high-resolution look at the geology of a Permian-Triassic boundary section on Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Arctic.

Their analysis, published today in the Geological Society of America Bulletin, provides strong evidence that Earth's biggest mass extinction phased in over hundreds of thousands of years.

About 252 million years ago, at the end of the Permian period, Earth almost became a lifeless planet.

Around 90 percent of all living species disappeared then, in what scientists have called "The Great Dying."

Algeo and colleagues have spent much of the past decade investigating the chemical evidence buried in rocks formed during this major extinction.

The world revealed by their research is a devastated landscape, barren of vegetation and scarred by erosion from showers of acid rain, huge "dead zones" in the oceans, and runaway greenhouse warming leading to sizzling temperatures.

The evidence that Algeo and his colleagues are looking at points to massive volcanism in Siberia as a factor.

"The scientists relate this extinction to Siberian Traps volcanic eruptions, which likely first affected boreal life through toxic gas and ashes," said H. Richard Lane, program director in the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Division of Earth Sciences, which funded the research.

The Siberian Traps form a large region of volcanic rock in Siberia. The massive eruptive event which formed the traps, one of the largest known volcanic events of the last 500 million years of Earth's geologic history, continued for a million years and spanned the Permian-Triassic boundary.

The term "traps" is derived from the Swedish word for stairs--trappa, or trapp--referring to the step-like hills that form the landscape of the region.

A large portion of western Siberia reveals volcanic deposits up to five kilometers (three miles) thick, covering an area equivalent to the continental United States. The lava flowed where life was most endangered, through a large coal deposit.

"The eruption released lots of methane when it burned through the coal," Algeo said. "Methane is 30 times more effective as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

"We're not sure how long the greenhouse effect lasted, but it seems to have been tens or hundreds of thousands of years."

Much of the evidence was washed into the ocean, and Algeo and his colleagues look for it among fossilized marine deposits.

Previous investigations have focused on deposits created by a now vanished ocean known as Tethys, a precursor to the Indian Ocean. Those deposits, in South China particularly, record a sudden extinction at the end of the Permian.

"In shallow marine deposits, the latest Permian mass extinction was generally abrupt," Algeo said. "Based on such observations, it has been widely inferred that the extinction was a globally synchronous event."

Recent studies are starting to challenge that view.

Algeo and co-authors focused on rock layers at West Blind Fiord on Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Arctic.

That location, at the end of the Permian, would have been much closer to the Siberian volcanoes than sites in South China.

The Canadian sedimentary rock layers are 24 meters (almost 80 feet) thick and cross the Permian-Triassic boundary, including the latest Permian mass extinction horizon.

The investigators looked at how the type of rock changed from the bottom to the top. They looked at the chemistry of the rocks and at the fossils contained in the rocks.

They discovered a total die-off of siliceous sponges about 100,000 years earlier than the marine mass extinction event recorded at Tethyan sites.

What appears to have happened, according to Algeo and his colleagues, is that the effects of early Siberian volcanic activity, such as toxic gases and ash, were confined to the northern latitudes.

Only after the eruptions were in full swing did the effects reach the tropical latitudes of the Tethys Ocean.

The research was also supported by the Canadian Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Exobiology Program.

In addition to Algeo, co-authors of the paper are: Charles Henderson, University of Calgary; Brooks Ellwood, Louisiana State University; Harry Rowe, University of Texas at Arlington; Erika Elswick, Indiana University, Bloomington; Steven Bates and Timothy Lyons, University of California, Riverside; James Hower, University of Kentucky; Christina Smith and Barry Maynard, University of Cincinnati; Lindsay Hays and Roger Summons, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; James Fulton, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution; and Katherine Freeman, Pennsylvania State University.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2012, its budget is $7.0 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives over 50,000 competitive requests for funding, and makes about 11,000 new funding awards. NSF also awards nearly $420 million in professional and service contracts yearly.

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Comments

Comments 1 to 43:

  1. While I recognise that a doom scenario over hundreds of thousands of years is ultimately as bad as one that happens in a hundred years, does not the vast time space of hundreds of thousands of years give us more chance to do something constructive? After all we as widespread species have not been around for that length of time.
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  2. The continental context is sketched here:

    Late Permian Worldmap

    The research highlights the Great Extinction Puzzle - a jigsaw of repeated extinction waves - local, regional, and global, over a very long geological period. About a decade ago, research in the Roo, South Africa, identified three great extinctions over a period of a million years. New species webs established themselves after each of the first two waves.

    Another note from the research is the sponge die-off 100ky earlier - side-by-side with the end of the trilobites.

    The 10million-year interval to the Triassic - The Gap - featured lots of fungi, produced almost no coal beds from plant life, and the land fossil-record is littered with a single pig-like creature - Lystrosaurus.

    The event should called The Great Warning.
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  3. A new theory is able to explain the underlying cause for almost all mass extinctions. To view a summary of this theory go to www.dinoextinct.com and click on 'The Gravity Theory Of Mass Extinction.'
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  4. Is that just spam for a book?
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  5. Whoever came up with that theory must not know much about basic physics and geology. The idea that the extra gravity of the continents coming together would make it impossible for large animals to survive is frankly ridiculous. Since, compared to the rest of the earth, the mass of the continental plates is very small. The other half of the theory suggests that less gravity on the ocean would create less water pressure on the frozen methane on the ocean floor. In principle, this is slightly less silly because it is talking about a particular compound, methane-hydrate, breaking down, instead of animals, which would easily adapt to such a small change. However, it seems that the grouping of the continents on the opposite side of the world would increase the gravity, but again, an insignificant amount.
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  6. The Gravity Theory does not, nor did it intend to, explain all extinctions - it would clearly fail on most of them including the present extinction. It's focused on the KTX boundary with a possible extension to the PTX.

    There's two Razors against the idea. First, the continental arrangement was already dispersing - in the context of the theory, Earth's 'balance' was increasing. Second, a bollide the mass of Mt. Everest hit a shallow sea&swamp full of calcium carbonate at exactly the same time as the biosphere effectively disappears.

    On the lengths of a globe that rotates:

    233K pdf of Earth's Rotation Evolution
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  7. I'm with JP40 - this is the silliest idea I have heard for a while. It demonstrates why you have to do the math instead of just hand-waving. The theory is worthy of Doug Cotton.
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  8. scaddenp@7:
    "The theory is worthy of Doug Cotton."


    Are you sure? There may be something to the gravity dino theory...........maybe.....

    It prob has more credence than Mr. Cotton's theory, however......ok....a toss up?
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  9. Even if a great die off is inevitable, I would rather put it off as long as possible. Perhaps it is not yet certain, but as a society we seem to want to ensure our doom.

    One in six just not good enough odds, we are filling up chamber after chamber before we play. Is that Darwin award really so important.
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  10. As the old saying says:

    The peoples that forgot their own history are doomed to repeat it...

    History like the deadly transitions:

    Permian/Triassic





    Paleocene/Eocene



    All due to huge releases of greenhouse gases, mainly CO2 and CH4 ...

    This(current global warming) is the worst mass dying occurring in tens of millions of years.

    The deniers, the polluters, the corrupted politicians are doing everything they can to have their hands stained forever in blood(or I should say H2S emitting purple-sulfur bacteria slime?)...

    We must stop them. If we don't, I am afraid we deserve to become extinct like most therapsids (mammal-like reptiles)after the Permian/Triassic event.
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  11. To moderator:

    the rescaling of the images does not work, it breaks the link to the third image instead.

    The source of the disturbing map (widespread flooding during the PETM) is here:

    Physical Oceanography & Climate Dynamics Winguth's Webpage
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  12. I am pretty sure that if greenhouse gass emissions remain unchecked, civilization will collapse before enough damage is done to set of the chain reaction of doom that killed almost all life. A special on the History Channel called Earth 2100 imagined a worst-case scenario of the affects of climate change, and most other issues that people worry about, like epidemics and border riots. It predicted the total collapse of modern, co2 emitting civilization at about 2100, with widespread anarchy starting at about 2080.
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  13. Yep JP40. I have to agree. And the big extra factor(s) you don't mention are all the pressures on our capacity to grow food - ocean acidification, fisheries collapse, ocean dead zones, soil degradation, collapsing water tables, increasing fertiliser costs due to excessive demand for Natural Gas. And so far I haven't mentioned any of the global warming issues. Initially I think Global Warming will be a 'force multiplier', not too bad in its own right, but compounding all the other threats. Then later in the century it kicks in harder and really tips things over the edge.
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  14. @JP40 12 - If it's a general unchecked carbon-pollution bloom spread throughout the biosphere, the web of life will degenerate and collapse. The complexity introduced rivals the PTX, and the speed of the event rivals the KTX. The persistence of artificially high CO2 levels is a geological precedent.

    Humans have technology, past present and future, and that's the big game-changer. We may not be last on the snuff list, but we'll see most other species go before us. We'll be accompanied by pets, pests, produce, and ghosts.
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  15. Owl905.

    I don't entirely agree with you there, for a fundamental reason. The technology we have today, if fully deployed could deal with the threat. But we aren't even remotely looking at deploying it fully at present. Past technology couldn't cope with it. Future technology certainly could.

    But there is a basic premise in your thinking that may not be obvious. That our societies will always be able to respond to these threats even though the threats are fundamentally likely to undermine the capacity of our societies. Since the nature of the threat is multi-generational and even multi-century, the assumption is that the capacity of our society to use the resources and knowledge we have will not be undermmined by the very threat we face over very long time scales.

    Consider things like, famine becomes pandemic in much of the world. What are the psychological impacts of this on each new generation growing up? How does it shape their emotional makeup. What does a world of perpetual violence do to peoples IQ, Emotional self-control, sense of civility. What happens when education levels for the mass of the population drop because the teachers can't work full time because they are growing food for their family, and protecting it from marauders?

    What happens when famines in China lead to its breakup and several key provinces eventually fall under the control of mafia like warlords. Provinces that are the major sources of Rare-Earth elements that drive much of our modern world - Indium, Hafnium, Niobium...

    What happens when starving countries actually turn completely pirate and disrupt world trade routes. What happens when refugee flows reach 100's of millions? How well do the target/host countries survive?

    Then ask the question, with so many assaults like these and more happening to the functioning of our societies, how long before that DVD disk that contains your family happy snaps, or course notes on the science of Protein-Folding, is unreadable because you DVD drive is dead and you can't replace it because the rare earths aren't available, the electricity supply is erratic anyway so you are re-learning candle making and the only real use for that disk is to sit your beer mug on because you are learning beer making as well.

    The best quote I have ever read about the fragility of societies wasn't intended as that at all. It was from a book about neuro-plasticity in the brain. 'Civilisation is only ever 1 generation deep'. Because all it takes is one generation that are not adequately trained, educated and developed into civilised people, and civilisation has ended.

    We may focus on what 'we' can do to fight these threats such as AGW. But we far too easily slip into thinking that AGW doesn't reciprocate the attention. The principle impact of AGW may well be the damage it causes to the psychological make up of our descendents.

    Some hold-outs and bastions of knowledge will remain of course. But that knowledge is useless without the capacities of a well functioning, civilised, intelligent, educated and ultimately capable society to deploy that knowledge. We in the West have no experience or conception of what a world without these things looks like. Ask the people of Afghanistan, Somalia, New Guinea. They could probably teach us a bit about the limits of what can be achieved.
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  16. In the EPA's worst case scenario of co2 emissions, co2 levels by 2100 are projected to be about 1000ppm. .1% if my conversions are right. By the end of Permian extinction, co2 levels reached 12%, and due to desertification and ocean anoxification, o2 levels dropped to almost 15%.
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  17. I have to agree that even if we can turn the denialist politicians and business leaders around it's going to be a helluva battle to save the planet as we will be ankle-tapped by the concurrent arrival of the loss of cheap energy, population overgrowth, diminishing resources and erratic weather limiting food production. Google the essay "I, pencil" for a mind-reset on just how fragile our civilization is. If it's that complicated making something as simple as a pencil, there's no way that hard drives are going to last long even assuming we can find a substitute for the lubricant needed for the bottom bearing on a hydro generation turbine.
    We will be able to make beer mugs, a bit of clay and fire will do that, but beer needs malt which needs barley which might be a struggle with the repeated storms and droughts.
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  18. This is a wonderful post. Thank you for all that you do.
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  19. The global history of the rise of civilization is a history of the discovery and development of previously untapped biological and geological sources.
    The generations which come after us will have a legacy of species extinctions, aquifer exhaustion or salination, desertification and holes in the ground where the coal, oil and gas have been extracted.

    How is that generation supposed to put right the legacy of biosphere devastation that we are leaving them? Is it not better that we act now to undo the damage to our environment while we still have as yet unexhausted resources?

    In geological terms, climate change and species extinction can be very rapid. In the chalk near my home there are many thin layers of flint in a great thickness of chalk. The abrupt transitions from chalk to flint and back to chalk are very striking, as is the existence of layers of flint barely 10 to 20 cm thick. These layers are, for me, striking evidence of just how abrupt climate change can be, and how unsettled. So, whenever someone says: "the climate has always changed" I reply:"Yes - and here comes a really nasty one!"
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  20. Glenn Tamblyn 15 wrote:
    "there is a basic premise in your thinking that may not be obvious. That our societies will always be able to respond to these threats even though the threats are fundamentally likely to undermine the capacity of our societies."

    There's no such underlying premise. There's probably multiple stages of triage for the Hot Planet. The comment was about exit and the place line.

    Quite the opposite, it's your Malthusian 'No Blade of Grass' hyberbole chalked with examples that have proven to be hollow. There's less famine now, less violence now, higher standards of living with a population explosion, and the pulse of famine has slowed to a stop in China.

    It's scare-mongering when the outcomes are diametrically opposed to the forecast. And the big reason for that is technology; hint- read the 1972 Club of Rome report. - they also missed the technology factor.
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  21. @JP40,scaddenp
    The theory that you dismiss will eventually be accepted. If you read the PDF and have basic knowledge about physics, geology and paleontology, you will understand why.

    Do you also believe that one of the references cited: 'Plate tectonic may control geomagnetic reversal frequency' is also "silly?" This reference provides strong support for the GTME, i.e., it supports the linkage between the movement of continental plates and the Earth's core.

    BTW, your understanding of the theory is faulty based on the comments you made. I would suggest you study angular momentum, particularly the conservation of angular momentum.
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  22. @Staten-John 21 - read it and rejected it. It's not a general explanation; it's a KTX proposition. It's a late-arrival crypto-extinction study that respects neither the geological movements of the Upper Cretaceous nor the elephant already in the room called the Chixulub Impact.
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  23. #21 ... and your source (presumably written by you) contains no actual calculations of the gravitational forces involved, nor a physical explanation of how the tiny and incredibly gradual changes in force are supposed to materially affect a living creature, let alone how these incredibly gradual changes in the distribution of Earth's gravity would cause a rapid extinction event. Therefore I relegate it to pure crackpottery, and will stick with better explanations for extinction events that rely on actual geological and palaeontological evidence, thanks.
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  24. Having rather more than "basic" knowledge of physics, geology and mathematics, I have no problem in dismissing it out of hand.
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  25. I have read more stuff about this silly theory and it is saying basically that the inner core would move towards Pangea and that would cause the gravity imbalance. The inner core contains about 2% of the earth's mass, and although it can move relative to the outer core, it is impossible for there to be a significant imbalance in the earth's mass. Think of the earth as a spinning object, because you obviously haven't.

    can we please stop discussing this lunacy and talk about the implications of the extinction on climate change today.
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  26. owl905 "And the big reason for that is technology; hint- read the 1972 Club of Rome report. - they also missed the technology factor."

    And what technology was that specifically?

    It was converting oil into fertiliser. The green revolution in places like India (and some people say the obesity epidemic in western countries) is entirely due to converting a non-renewable resource into food.

    How will we continue to feed 7 billion+ people as the major contributor to the soil productivity of the last few decades steadily becomes more expensive and eventually disappears?

    Technology can probably do it. But not the technology we've known over the last 50 years.
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  27. Well....... We'd better start inventing that technology, so that we can make it practical and implement it before we go the way of the Romans, Maya, and Easter islanders.
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  28. @ 26-27
    Also, although nitrogen based fertilizers help to grow crops, they do not seem to be good for the ocean biosphere when the run off gets to the coastal areas.There is also seems to be some evidence that weeds are developing resistance to the chemical herbicides that GMO crops were designed to tolerate.
    Technological fixes seem to come with associated problems.
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  29. Owl905

    "Quite the opposite, it's your Malthusian 'No Blade of Grass' hyberbole chalked with examples that have proven to be hollow. There's less famine now, less violence now, higher standards of living with a population explosion, and the pulse of famine has slowed to a stop in China.

    It's scare-mongering when the outcomes are diametrically opposed to the forecast. And the big reason for that is technology; hint- read the 1972 Club of Rome report. - they also missed the technology factor. "

    Fundamental logical fallacy here Owl. The club of Rome report as about resources and their depletion, wastes and their accumulation. It is not about technology. For the simple reason that technology is about the efficiency with which we do something. So if we are consuming resources, technology may reduce the rate at which we consume those resources. But it cannot reduce the rate to zero. So technology can contribute to possibly changing when we hit various limits. But it cannnot change the fact that we will hit them.

    So lets consider your statement "There's less famine now, less violence now, higher standards of living with a population explosion, and the pulse of famine has slowed to a stop in China."

    Yes it has. And depletion of limited groundwater has accelerated, soil loss due to erosion has increased, agricultural yields are more dependent on fertilisers derived from Natural Gas, Nitrogenous fertilisers are causing steadily increasing problems of run-off into the oceans. When fisheries collapse, most don't recover. And so on...

    So far our technology has allowed us to continue to grow because the technology has become ever more capable at harvesting resources. And for decades the technology became so good and ever better at harvesting resources that we seemed to be getting ahead. And we were. For a time. But the very technologies that let us harvest resources better for our benefit today hasten the arrival of the time when we can't find enough resources to harvest, no matter what the technology.

    A simple case study in this is India, the Punjab, Rice and Water.

    The Punjab is now the rice bowl of India. It is probably the main reason real famine doesn't occur in India today. And this revolution is partly about crop strains, fertilizers, machinery etc. But more than anything else it is about water. Water fuels the Punjab. And while the water is there, times are good. And the Indian Government has fueled this by providing subsidies for pumps and the electricity to run them. There are farmers in the Punjab who don't bother growing a crop. They earn a living from just selling the water pumped from under their plot of land.

    And water tables are dropping. It is not uncommon for people to pump water from a kilometer underground.

    So technology has made us far more efficient at extracting resources which have produced a short term benefit of reduced famines etc. But still only by accelerating our draw-down of resources.

    Technology doesn't invalidate the Club Of Rome's findings. It simply changes it's timing of when they occur. Rather than the CoR's projections, technology may defer the moderate level impacts for a while, but accelerate the later more severe impacts.

    Technology is capable of providing paradigm shifts. Rather than just temporarily delaying resource limits, it has the potential to break out of the limits. But only if we accept the social and economic changes that technology might enable to produce a truely sustainable economic system.

    The technology is neutral. It can help us build a sustainable economic system. Or it can turbo-charge an unsustainable system.

    So rather than highlighting what technology might have delivered so far, rather, ask what it has cost to do so, and what has this to say about what can be delivered in the future.

    Basic rule in life. Never try to judge the future by looking at the past. By just looking at what happened. If we are to make judgements about the future, we need to look at WHY past events occurred and what this tells us about the future.
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  30. @Glen - very sad response from you. ClubofRome 'wasn't about technology' was because it was the factor they missed. You missed it as well. And no, it doesn't "just change the timing". You fall on your facia with the Punjab as an example that isn't about technology - while you acknowledge all the technology used to make it succeed.

    Technology isn't succeeding "only by accelerating our draw-down of resources". That's fictional nonsense. After that you drift into a philosophical ambiguity that's unfounded by observation.

    The fundamental fallacy is yours; your response highlights an attempt to dance around while failing to deal with it.
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  31. @adelady 26

    "And what technology was that specifically?
    It was converting oil into fertiliser."

    You're kidding, right? Every aspect - information, science, remote sensing, biology, chemistry, education, finance, management ... there's no end to the technology paradigm - the period since the mid-70s is soaked in every aspect of technology invention and innovation imaginable. To make any claim that it is nothing more than oil into fertilizer in the agriculture world is Guinness-level myopia.
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  32. I'm late to this thread, so others (especially Glenn Tamblyn) have already said what I will below, but I feel that it bears repeating with a slightly different emphasis.

    With respect to Malthus, Club of Rome, the Ehrlichs and similar, it is important to recognise, as Glenn and Adelady and others already have, that technology simply delayed the anticipated consequences of human population growth and societal complexity. The various resource limitations do still exist - they've simply been moved to a different timeframe through energy and technology use.

    After all, what technology will actually sustainably quench the world's huge and growing thirst for water? What technology will actually sustainably assuage the world's huge and growing hunger for meat, for timber, for the very space and topsoils that are used to grow such resources and much more? How will such future technologies be sustainably energised?

    Sorry owl905, but I'm with my ecological colleagues' (and Albert Bartlett's and Joseph Tainter's, amongst others) consensus on this matter. And all that technology about which you speak is coming with huge collateral damage, and it's largely because (most) humans don't live in the Arctic, or in a disappearing rainforest, or 100 metres underground in an aquifer, that they don't understand the cumulative damage to the biosphere that is occurring.

    When all is said and done it boils down to basic thermodynamics, and one of the thermodynamic penalties of humanity's co-opting of the planets' energy/resource systems will be that the bottoming-out, when it inevitably comes, will be all the more severe. Essentially, we've made a Faustian bargain in order to avoid paying the piper.

    As Glen observed in his post at #15, no technology currently in existence will allow humanity to avoid those thermodynamic consequences. Similarly - and here I am forced to differ somewhat with Glenn's otherwise excellent post - it is extremely difficult to see how a possible "future technology certainly could" enable humans to avoid the huge entropy imbalance that we've inflicted on the planet's life support systems, whether one is speaking agriculturally or ecologically. The numbers do not add up, and certainly not if future (larger?) human societies are to be equitable. If anything our technological trajectory seems to describe the thermodynamic equivalent of the story of the old woman who swallowed a fly...

    For this reason I am not a technofixophile. Not by itself, and not with the numbers of humans that we have on the planet. If we had at least an order of magnitude fewer people, and if we had a system that doesn't encourage the gross inequity and cavalier waste that we see in our societies, then perhaps our technology could catapult us toward what is currently science fiction, but in some cases even that would require skirting around the current laws of physics that dictate the ultimate finiteness of the resources available to us.

    And before someone puts their hand up at this point and mentions interstellar (or even interplanetary) travel, please calculate the energy and time requirements to successfully and productively achieve such, or point to the particular laws that might be circumvented in order to bring those otherwise literally astronomical numbers within reach of human endeavour.

    There's also the fact that our ever more sophisticated technologies, as the complex systems that they are, are vulnerable to disruptions. The more complex, the more that can go wrong, and in the case of serious failure, the more difficult it can be to recover. This is the stuff of whole threads though - indeed, of whole disciplines - and it's wandering from the basic subject of this thread, so I won't head down that path at the moment.

    And in case any readers here missed them, Tamino had a couple of interesting threads in the vein of this thread:

    http://tamino.wordpress.com/2012/01/04/what-is-epsilon

    http://tamino.wordpress.com/2012/01/23/best-case-scenario/
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  33. Bernard J. - I agree with you that for humanity to survive on earth, and for the earth to survive, we need far fewer people living on it. But, I strongly dissagree with your dismissal of the possibility of colonizing space. The amount of energy required for moving people that far is mostly irrelevant, because there is no friction in space. After a spacecraft reaches its cruising speed, it doesn't need to fire its engines until it reaches its destination. As Robert Heinlein said "Get to low earth orbit and you're halfway to anywhere in the solar system." Most of the massive Saturn-5 rocket that sent the Apollo astronauts to the moon was just to get the rocket out of the atmosphere. We have the technology right now to colonize the moon and put a permanent outpost on Mars. It's only a matter of a government putting the 20-30 billion USD required into its space program. The only other issue is time. Using our current rocket technology, it takes 1-2 earth years to get to Mars.
    I liken it to the age of exploration in the 1500s. Where people decided to get on a boat and start a new life in the "new world." People then couldn't imagine that now we can cross the Atlantic in a few hours. With radiation protection, people could live their entire lives on Mars, or rotating space stations. Probably not on the moon, because of the affects of low gravity on people. Getting back to the topic, if human damage to the environment triggers the same chain of events as in the P-T extinction, settlements in space could be the only way to preserve our civilization and our species. As Carl Sagan said "All civilizations become either spacefaring or extinct."
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  34. The technology needed for accomplishing a task isn't a guarantee to it getting done. We see this now with space travel exploration, but it also applies to climate change issues. Just because we know how to build wind turbines, solar plants, indoor airoponic farms, and sea barriers, doesn't mean we will be able to stop a collapse of civilization due to climate change and overpopulation related problems. The main problem in the western world, and especially America is the capitalist economy. A large corporation, as a collective entity of people pursuing their personal goals, has absolutely no intrest in reducing its profit margins, in the long term intrest of helping our civilization survive. That, and the fact that politics works a similar way, with politicians only concerned about getting reelected, Is the main reason why climate change denial is so wide-spread. In WW2, the government ordered car companies to start making tanks, jeeps, and aircraft. If a strong-willed president tried that today, with renewable energy, he/she would be called a commie and would get almost no support from congress. Technology is useless if the power behind the money needed to implement it won't act in the long-term best intrest of its people.
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  35. JP40 @ 33, you say
    "settlements in space could be the only way to preserve our civilization and our species"
    Even if our space settlements could survive the randomness of critical failures of equipment, or damage from the likes of meteorites and even if they had the capability to engineer replacement parts for failed equipment, I earnestly hope that they would not preserve our civilisation. After all, it is our civilised treatment of our home planet that is causing us to consider alternatives.

    I am saddened by the thought that all we have learned during our evolution may be lost, but I wonder whether knowledge has not been the poisoned fruit which now threatens us. If only we had never developed opposed thumbs, the world would still be Eden and humanity would be innocent of its crimes.
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  36. Owl9005 @30

    "You fall on your facia with the Punjab as an example that isn't about technology - while you acknowledge all the technology used to make it succeed."

    Key point about you comment - you are speaking in the past tense. The question isn't whether something has 'succeeded'! It is whether that success is or can be enduring.

    Yes Owl, the technology allowed it to succeed. For now. By being so good at consuming a resource - groundwater - that for a time the good times rolled. And still are at present. But the water tables keep on dropping. And they can't do that forever. What happens when the technology of pumps runs up against the lack of resources availabe to be pumped?

    This is the fallacy of always assuming that technology will provide long term answers rather than just stop-gaps for a few decades. Technology is neutral. We can use it to solve problems or compound them. Technology doesn't solve problems, sensible thinking does. Technology is simply the 'force multiplier' for other judgements.
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  37. Doug H - if you hate civilization so much, then maybe you should go to the African rift valley and chop off your thumbs. You would live a very short, hard, and hungry life in your "garden of eden." If you want to get philosophical, in 5 billion years the sun will become a red giant, and if there isn't an intelligent, spacefaring civilization around, life, the most amazing thing in the universe, could be destroyed forever. You seem to be saying that we all need to be punished for what we are currently doing to the planet. The important thing is that we learn from our mistakes and don't make them again. It makes me very sad that self-distructive nihilisim like this exists.
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  38. This technology debate is ignoring totally renewable technology like wind and solar energy. There are also renewable ways to produce food, like airoponic indoor farms, which use a very small amount of water, and nutrients that can be made by bacteria cultures. Currently, these technologies are expensive and impractical, and probably won't be able to save our civilization, but to say that all technologies just increase how fast we use up the Earth's resources is the fallacy here.
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  39. JP40 @ 37, I am sorry if you took the impression that I hate civilisation. That is too strong a view. Civilisation, with its opportunities for intellectual growth, has some wonderful aspects. What I regret, however, is the damage our advanced Western-style civilisation has done to the biosphere. Do you not find it depressing that we are candidly discussing the chances that humanity will cause the destruction of the very processes of nature that sustain it? The forces of destruction are largely fuelled by greed, which is arguably not a merit of civilisation.

    Technology allows us to exploit more of our resources and overpopulation places growing demand for that technology. Our growth is constrained by a limited quantity of exploitable resources as we only have one planet, but our economy collapses without perpetual growth. I have no problem with civilisation per se, but I do have a problem with our collective blindness.

    To quote from the original post:
    The world revealed by their research is a devastated landscape, barren of vegetation and scarred by erosion from showers of acid rain, huge "dead zones" in the oceans, and runaway greenhouse warming leading to sizzling temperatures.
    Is this not similar to the dangerous climate we are heading for, unless we change our carbon trajectory? Is this not the by-product of our greed-based economy? Yes, the sun will destroy Earth in some billions of years, but humanity has the capacity to cause mass extinctions well before that time.

    What you call "self-destructive nihilism", I call pragmatism. To avoid the worst outcome, we have to change course quickly and drastically. Being a pragmatist, I don't believe the vested interests of humanity will change quickly enough, or drastically enough, to avoid very bad consequences.
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  40. Sorry for the misunderstanding. It seemed that you were saying that humanity deserves to be punished for its "crimes," and that it would be better if we stayed Australopithecus Aferensis. I do agree with you that our civilization will collapse in the next few centuries, causing a lot of collateral damage, but I don't actually think that it is very likely that there will be a repeat of the P-T extinction.

    Here are the numbers: by the end of the main phase of the extinction, co2 levels reached 3000 ppm. The IPCC's worst case scenario for co2 by 2100 is 1000 ppm, which isn't enough to cause the gassification of methane hydrate en masse.

    I think that by 2100 there will be enough anarchy to stop most co2 production, so this projection is optimistic (or pessimistic, however you look at it). 
    I am confidant that civilization will rise again. However, most of our knowledge will be destroyed, and the recovery will be much slower than if a small portion of it survived somewhere other than earth. Our current situation reminds me of Isaac Asimov's Foundation series. In these books, a mathematician who has found a way to predict the future sees that the galactic empire will collapse, and builds a society on a planet on the edge of the empire, in order to compile and preserve all of the empire's knowledge, and to work to reunite it. 

    After the rise, we need to make sure that we don't ever rely on something that will have serious long term consequences. The earth may not be able to sustainably sustain very many people, compared to the number we have now, but that doesn't mean those extra people have to not exist, because we don't "only have one planet." There is the possibility of terraforming Mars and possibly Venus, which would give us 2 extra planets to live, outside domes, metal cans, underground complexes, and space suits. 

    You seem to be saying now that technology is the main cause of human greed, and only depletes resources. This view ignores both the cutthroat imperial politics before the industrial revolution, and technologies like wind and solar energy, that don't deplete any resources. Without our current fossil fuel-fuled economy, we wouldn't be enlightened enough to contemplate its demise. In fact, before the industrial revolution, most people were totally ignorant peasants who only knew what they heard by word of mouth. It will be our technology that will liberate us from having to live in balance with natural ecology, and will save natural ecology in the far future.
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  41. JP40 @ 40, Yes the Foundation series has occurred to me as well, in this context. Perhaps we need to sequester as much of human knowledge as possible electronically, on another body in the solar system, ready to be discovered by some putative future generation after the Fall and Rise.
    It will be our technology that will liberate us from having to live in balance with natural ecology, and will save natural ecology in the far future.
    We place enormous trust in future technology. I hope it will save the day, but I am not so convinced that I could say with certainty that it will do so.

    I think you have misunderstood part of my last post, which was probably not very clear. My point is that greed drives the development of technology, not the other way around. Unless there is "something in it for me", I am unlikely to come up with a new tool or method. Our whole way of life revolves around satisfying our needs and that translates into greed when we seek to acquire more than we actually need as individuals. There is no basic 'need' to be a billionaire, but plenty of us aspire to it.
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  42. Building a giant server bank on the moon, or even a self-sufficient colony, isn't future technology. We had the technology to go there 40 years ago. It is only a matter of someone with enough money and power deciding not to be greedy, which ,as you observed, isn't likely. However, if anyone reading this blog happens to be a political leader of a large country or a billionaire, I beg you to invest in our future.
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  43. If we are talking of Gradual Doom (or Abrupt, for that matter), it would be a mildly interesting mental exercise to come up with a means of storing our accumulated knowledge in such a way that it would be available for the next sentient race to evolve on Earth. It would have to survive global catastrophes like volcanoes and earthquakes, perhaps even meteor strikes. It would have to provide a full training manual, to explain how to access the information it stores. That would mean it would require a 'bootstrap' section explaining our language and sufficient physics to enable the discoverer to apply the correct kind of power to the correct terminals of the box. Something like the discs in H. G. Wells' "The Time Machine" might do it.

    But then, who would want the knowledge acquired by a race that learned how to destroy a perfectly satisfactory biosphere?
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