We're heading for a Permian Type Extinction Event

Sun, 2017-09-24 21:30 -- David

Guy Lane, 23 september 2017

On the first of September, 1939, the German military invaded Poland, kicking off World War II.  Many Polish people on the new front line were likely unaware of what was befalling them as the first of the Junker bombers pounded them with high explosives, early in the morning.

From wikipedia: “The first regular act of war took place on 1 September 1939, at 04:40, when the Luftwaffe attacked the Polish town of Wieluń destroying 75% of the city and killing close to 1,200 people, most of them civilians.”

One might argue that the few people who closely followed the politics and military manoeuvring – and who knew what was going on – had a big advantage over those who didn’t.  Even those who were quickly swept up in the conflict, and unable to escape, surely would have benefited from knowing.

Consider these two conversations:

  1. What was that? That was a German bomb dropped from a plane. What’s happening? The Germans are invading. What should we do? Go to the basement, immediately. Will we survive? I don’t know.
  2. What was that? I don’t know. What’s happening? I have no idea. What should we do? Go to the basement, immediately. Will we survive? I don’t know.

Personally. I would prefer the first conversation to the second, any day.

When the bombs are falling, there is no guarantee that knowing whose they are is going to materially help you survive.  But psychologically, it helps to understand what and why the tragedy is befalling; there is a power knowledge.  There is a terror in not knowing what’s going on.

It is for this reason, that I spend much time reading, reforming, and communicating issues of Long Future Sustainability.  I don’t necessarily believe that I can forestall the destiny that is racing towards the human race like a tsunami wave.  Instead, I do this because I think that people are simply better-off knowing what is possibly going to hit them.  Forewarned is forearmed, right?

Many sustainability educators disagree with this position; they are roundly fearful that the truth will scare their audience into inaction.  As such, I have often been advised to pussy-foot around the grim, disaster scenarios that sustainability science so often throws up.  But, I have long questioned this perspective.  Sure, there are lots of good news stories in the sustainability sphere that need to be told; but the grim needs to be heard as well, at least for the sake of context.

As far as I am concerned, we humans are ‘unsustainable super-predators’ whether we know so or not, and getting a look in the mirror every now and then is an opportunity for enlightenment for the few who are open to it.  A recent article in the Guardian – Climate Optimism has been a disaster – reinforces my position.

So with the intent to let my audience know the detail of the enemy forces gathered on the border, and soon to launch their blitzkreig, I would like to share a new, grim insight from a subset of sustainability science called paleo-climatology.  This is a study of ancient climates, and can be used to give insights into what’s in store for the humans in the coming years.  The science that I have been reading seeks to understand the Permian extinction, and how contemporary greenhouse emissions compare.  It is not good.

The Permian extinction – about 250 million years ago, an era of humid swamps and primitive dinosaurs – is recognised for its depth, which is to say that 90% of all species were killed off during it.  That’s very grim; but what is even more grim, is the cause

It is believed that ancient volcanic eruptions (a kind known as LIP) burned through carbon-rich fossil fuels and peat, and released a huge burp of CO2 gas into the atmosphere, causing global warming and acidification of the ocean.  A 2004 fine-scale assessment of the event, suggests that this took place over a relatively short timeframe of 2,000 - 18,000 years, and the climate took 10 million years to stabilize, afterwards.

A more contemporary study – Thresholds of Catastrophe in the Earth System - sought to identify if there was a critical threshold beyond which increasing CO2 triggered the extinction event.  It seems there is.

According to climate threat analyst Robert Fanney, writing as Robert Scribbler, “the study found that when about 310 billion tons of carbon gets taken in by the oceans, a critical boundary is crossed and a global mass extinction event is likely to occur.”

So, how does that compare with today’s situation? How close are we to a Permian-like tipping point? The diagram below from the science report helps to answer the first of these questions.

Since the industrial revolution, we humans have pumped billions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere from forests, fossils and cement production. Much of this CO2 has been absorbed into the ocean – about 155 billion tons, in fact.

So, if 310 – 155 = 155, then we are half way to the tipping point. And, at the current rate of emissions, we have about sixty years till we hit the tipping point to the Permian-like Mass Extinction Event.  Sooner, if the emissions increase - as they are, because the planet has started to off-gas, and the carbon sinks are failing.

Returning to 1939 Poland for a minute, 75% of the town was destroyed by the German bombing; which suggests that 25% remained.  Human civilization won’t be so ‘fortunate’ should the world tip into a new, Permian-like extinction event over the next sixty years or less.  Indeed, the humans are likely to be in one of the first tranches of extinct species, along with all the other mammals.

Fortunately, there is some good news; and like a good sustainability communicator, I will share it: we know what to do to avoid this catastrophe.  We need to rapidly transition to a zero carbon economy, and draw down billions of tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere.  And, we have made a start, of sorts.  The trouble is – for a variety of reasons, discussed on other posts – we aren’t doing this anything like fast enough to avert a global catastrophe.  If this keeps up, we humans face a very grim future, indeed.

Guy Lane - 23 September, 2017

Cumulative modern ocean uptake of carbon since 1850, up to the present (green) and projected to 2100 (blue), compared to the predicted critical mass of 310 Pg C (solid red line) and an assumed uncertainty of ±50% (dashed red lines).
Projections are given for four representative concentration pathway scenarios RCPx, where x represents the radiative forcing, in units of W/m2, deriving from accumulated emissions in the year 2100.  At the extreme ends of the projections, RCP2.6 represents the range of lowest-emission scenarios in the scientific literature, and RCP8.5 represents the high range of nonclimate policy scenarios.  Of the two intermediate pathways, RCP4.5 corresponds to an emission pathway resulting from many climate policies found in the literature, whereas RCP6.0 is representative of most scenarios without limitations on emissions. The present cumulative uptake is obtained by adding 6 years of an annual uptake rate of 2.3 Pg C year−1 to the 2011 total of Ciais et al.    To chase references See <http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/3/9/e1700906.full>