Marine ecosystems have entered the Anthropocene

Sampling of foraminifera found in a sediment core from the Caribbean, dating back to before the Industrial Revolution. CREDIT MICHAL KUCERA

Anthropogenic climate change and ocean acidification resulting from the emission of vast quantities of CO2 and other greenhouse gases pose a considerable threat to ecosystems and modern society. Planktonic foraminifera are a group of marine zooplankton that made their first appearance in the Late Triassic. Although, identifying the first occurrence of planktonic foraminifera is complex, with many suggested planktonic forms later being reinterpreted as benthic. They are present in different types of marine sediments, such as carbonates or limestones, and are excellent biostratigraphic markers. Their test are made of  globular chambers composed of secrete calcite or aragonite, with no internal structures and different patterns of chamber disposition: trochospiral, involute trochospiral and planispiral growth. During the Cenozoic, some forms exhibited supplementary apertures or areal apertures. The tests also show perforations and a variety of surface ornamentations like cones, short ridges or spines. The phylogenetic evolution of planktonic foraminifera are closely associated with global and regional changes in climate and oceanography.

John Murray, naturalist of the CHALLENGER Expedition (1872-1876) found that differences in species composition of planktonic foraminifera from ocean sediments contain clues about the temperatures in which they lived. The ratio of heavy and light Oxygen in foraminifera shells can reveal how cold the ocean was and how much ice existed at the time the shell formed. Another tool to reconstruct paleotemperatures is the ratio of magnesium to calcium (Mg/Ca) in foraminiferal shells. Mg2+ incorporation into foraminiferal calcite  is influenced by the temperature of the surrounding seawater, and the Mg/Ca ratios increase with increasing temperature.

Planktonic foraminifera from the Sargasso Sea in the North Atlantic Ocean. (Photograph courtesy Colomban de Vargas, EPPO/SBRoscoff.)

Analyzing previously collected sediment samples from over 3,500 sites around the world’s ocean, researchers found that the composition of the planktonic foraminifera has changed significantly since the pre-industrial period. The shifts in planktonic foraminifera are indicative of a more-general phenomenon across marine ecosystem, with zooplankton communities shifting poleward by an average 374 miles as a result of warming ocean temperatures.

Human activity is a major driver of the dynamics of Earth system. After the World War II, the impact of human activity on the global environment dramatically increased. Ocean warming reduces the solubility of oxygen, and raises metabolic rates accelerating the thermal stratification.

References:

Jonkers, L., Hillebrand, H., & Kucera, M. (2019). Global change drives modern plankton communities away from the pre-industrial state. Nature. doi:10.1038/s41586-019-1230-3

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The hyperthermals of the geological record

During the last 540 million years five mass extinction events shaped the history of the Earth. Those events were related to extreme climatic changes. The geological records show that large and rapid global warming events occurred repeatedly during the course of Earth history.
Our planet’s climate has oscillated between two basic states: the “Icehouse”, and the “Greenhouse”, and superimposed on this icehouse–greenhouse climate cycling, there are a number of geologically abrupt events known as hyperthermals, when atmospheric CO2 concentrations may rise above 16 times (4,800 ppmv). Although each hyperthermal is unique, they are consequence from the release of anomalously large inputs of CO2 into the atmosphere and are relatively short-lived (with the exception of the Permian–Triassic boundary).

A summary of the most significant hyperthermals in the last 300 Myr. From Foster et. al., 2018.

The emplacement of large igneous provinces (LIPs) is commonly associated with hyperthermals, for example, the Siberian Traps at the P–T boundary. The CO2 emissions caused global warming. The SO2 emissions on mixing with water vapour in the atmosphere, caused acid rain, which in turn killed land plants and caused soil erosion. Warmer oceans melted frozen methane located in marine sediments which pushed the global temperatures to higher levels. Additionally, the increased continental weathering induced by acid rain and global warming led to increased marine productivity and eutrophication, and so oceanic anoxia, and marine mass extinctions.

The hyperthermal at the P–T boundary was associated with the most severe terrestrial and oceanic mass extinction of the last 541 Myr, where 96% of species became extinct. It comprises two killing events, one at the end of the Permian (EPME) and a second at the beginning of the Triassic, separated by 60000 years. In terms of carbon isotope excursion, the P–T boundary hyperthermal and the PETM share many similarities, but the warming after the P-T boundary was more extreme and extended for longer than PETM.

Flow chart summarizing proposed cause-and-effect relationships during the end-Permian extinction (From Bond and Wignall, 2014)

The End-Triassic Extinction is probably the least understood of the big five. It has been linked to the eruption of the Central Atlantic Magmatic Province (CAMP), a large igneous province emplaced during the initial rifting of Pangea. Most mammal-like reptiles and large amphibians disappeared, as well as early dinosaur groups. In the oceans, this event eliminated conodonts and nearly annihilated corals, ammonites, brachiopods and bivalves. In the Southern Hemisphere, the vegetation turnover consisted in the replacement to Alisporites (corystosperm)-dominated assemblage to a Classopollis (cheirolepidiacean)-dominated one.

The early Toarcian Oceanic Anoxic Event (T-OAE; ∼183 mya) in the Jurassic Period is considered as one of the most severe of the Mesozoic era. The T-OAE is thought to have been caused by increased atmospheric CO2 triggered by Karoo–Ferrar volcanism. Results from the Paris Bassin indicates that the increasing greenhouse conditions may have caused acidification in the oceans, hampering carbonate bio-mineralisation, and provoking a dramatical loss in the CO2 storage capacity of the oceans.

Tentative changes in mid-latitude vegetation patterns during OAE2. (a) Araucariaceae, (b) other conifers incl. Cheirolepidiaceae, (c) Cupressaceae, (d) angiosperms incl. Normapolles-producing forms, (e) ferns. From Heimhofer et al., 2018.

The early Aptian Oceanic Anoxic Event (OAE1a, 120 Ma) represents a geologically brief time interval characterized by rapid global warming, dramatic changes in ocean circulation including widespread oxygen deficiency, and profound changes in marine biotas. During the event, black shales were deposited in all the main ocean basins. It was also associated with the calcification crisis of the nannoconids, the most ubiquitous planktic calcifiers during the Early Cretaceous. Their near disappearance is one of the most significant events in the nannoplankton fossil record.

The mid-Cretaceous Oceanic Anoxic Event 2 (OAE2, 93 Ma) marks the onset of an extreme phase in ocean temperatures known as the “Cretaceous thermal maximum”. It has been postulated that the OAE2 was triggered by a massive magmatic episode.

Comparison of the effects of anthropogenic emissions (total of 5000 Pg C over 500 years) and PETM carbon release (3000 Pg C over 6 kyr) on the surface ocean saturation state of calcite. From Zeebe, 2013

The Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM; 55.8 million years ago), was a short-lived (~ 200,000 years) global warming event attributed to a rapid rise in the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. It was suggested that this warming was initiated by the melting of methane hydrates on the seafloor and permafrost at high latitudes. During the PETM, around 5 billion tons of CO2 was released into the atmosphere per year, and temperatures increased by 5 – 9°C. This event was accompanied by other large-scale changes in the climate system, for example, the patterns of atmospheric circulation, vapor transport, precipitation, intermediate and deep-sea circulation and a rise in global sea level. But unlike other hyperthermals, the PETM is not associated with significant extinctions.

Anthropogenic climate change and ocean acidification resulting from the emission of vast quantities of CO2 and other greenhouse gases pose a considerable threat to ecosystems and modern society. The combination of global warming and the release of large amounts of carbon to the ocean-atmosphere system during the PETM has encouraged analogies to be drawn with modern anthropogenic climate change. The current rate of the anthropogenic carbon input is probably greater than during the PETM, causing a more severe decline in ocean pH and saturation state. Also the biotic consequences of the PETM were fairly minor, while the current rate of species extinction is already 100–1000 times higher than would be considered natural. This underlines the urgency for immediate action on global carbon emission reductions.

References:

Foster GL, Hull P, Lunt DJ, Zachos JC. (2018) Placing our current‘hyperthermal’ in the context of rapid climate change in our geological past. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A 376: 20170086 http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsta.2017.0086

Benton MJ. (2018) Hyperthermal-driven mass extinctions: killing models during the Permian–Triassic mass extinction. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A 376: 20170076. http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsta.2017.0076

Penn, J. L., Deutsch, C., Payne, J. L., & Sperling, E. A. (2018). Temperature-dependent hypoxia explains biogeography and severity of end-Permian marine mass extinction. Science, 362(6419), eaat1327. doi:10.1126/science.aat1327 

Ernst, R. E., & Youbi, N. (2017). How Large Igneous Provinces affect global climate, sometimes cause mass extinctions, and represent natural markers in the geological record. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, 478, 30–52. doi:10.1016/j.palaeo.2017.03.014

Turgeon, S. C., & Creaser, R. A. (2008). Cretaceous oceanic anoxic event 2 triggered by a massive magmatic episode. Nature, 454(7202), 323–326. doi:10.1038/nature07076

Ulrich Heimhofer, Nina Wucherpfennig, Thierry Adatte, Stefan Schouten, Elke Schneebeli-Hermann, Silvia Gardin, Gerta Keller, Sarah Kentsch & Ariane Kujau (2018) Vegetation response to exceptional global warmth during Oceanic Anoxic Event 2, Nature Communications volume 9, Article number: 3832

Zeebe RE and Zachos JC. 2013 Long-term legacy ofmassive carbon input to the Earth system: Anthropocene versus Eocene. Phil Trans R Soc A 371: 20120006. http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsta.2012.0006.

 

Learning from Past Climate Changes

In the last 540 million years, five mass extinction events shaped the history of the Earth. Those events were related to extreme climatic changes and were mainly caused by asteroid impacts, massive volcanic eruption, or the combination of both.  On a global scale the main forces behind climatic change are: solar forcing, atmospheric composition, plate tectonics, Earth’s biota, and of course, us. Human activity is a major driver of the dynamics of Earth system. From hunter-gatherer and agricultural communities to the highly technological societies of the 21st century, humans have driven the climate Earth system towards new, hotter climatic conditions. Until the Industrial Revolution, the average global CO2 levels fluctuated between about 170 ppm and 280 ppm. But with the beginning of the Industrial Era, that number risen above 300 ppm, currently averaging an increase of more than 2 ppm per year. The average monthly level of CO2 in the atmosphere in last April exceeded the 410 ppm for first time in history. Thus we could hit an average of 500 ppm within the next 45 years, a number that has been unprecedented for the past 50–100+ million years according to fossil plant-based CO2 estimates. This current human-driven change far exceed the rates of change driven by geophysical or biosphere forces that have altered the Earth System trajectory in the past, and it poses severe risks for health, economies and political stability. Learning from past climatic changes is critical to our future.

Planktonic foraminifera from the Sargasso Sea in the North Atlantic Ocean. (Photograph courtesy Colomban de Vargas, EPPO/SBRoscoff.)

Microfossils from deep-sea are crucial elements for the understanding of our past and present oceans. Their skeletons take up chemical signals from the sea water, in particular isotopes of oxygen and carbon. Over millions of years, these skeletons accumulate in the deep ocean to become a major component of biogenic deep-sea sediments. The importance of microfossils as tool for paleoclimate reconstruction was recognized early in the history of oceanography. John Murray, naturalist of the CHALLENGER Expedition (1872-1876) found that differences in species composition of planktonic foraminifera from ocean sediments contain clues about the temperatures in which they lived. The ratio of heavy and light Oxygen in foraminifera shells can reveal how cold the ocean was and how much ice existed at the time the shell formed. Another tool to reconstruct paleotemperatures is the ratio of magnesium to calcium (Mg/Ca) in foraminiferal shells. Mg2+ incorporation into foraminiferal calcite  is influenced by the temperature of the surrounding seawater, and the Mg/Ca ratios increase with increasing temperature.

Diatoms and radiolarians are susceptible to different set of dissolution parameters than calcareous fossils, resulting in a different distribution pattern at the sea floor and have been used for temperature estimates in the Pacific and in the Antarctic Oceans, especially where calcareous fossils are less abundant. Diatom assemblages are also used in reconstructions of paleoproductivity.

Scanning electron microscope image of different types of pollen grains. Image from Wikipedia.

Pollen and other palynomorphs proved to be an extraordinary tool to paleoenvironmental reconstruction too. Pollen analysis involves the quantitative examination of spores and pollen at successive horizons through a core, specially in lake, marsh or delta sediments, especially in Quaternary sediments where the parent plants are well known. This provide information on regional changes in vegetation through time, and it’s also a valuable tool for archaeologists because it gives clues about man’s early environment and his effect upon it.

Stomatal frequency of land plants, which has been shown in some species to vary inversely with atmospheric pCO2, has been used to estimate paleo-pCO2 for multiple geological time periods. Stomata are the controlled pores through which plants exchange gases with their environments, and play a key role in regulating the balance between photosynthetic productivity and water loss through transpiration.

Temple I on The Great Plaza and North Acropolis seen from Temple II in Tikal, Guatemala. From Wikimedia Commons

Paleoecological records indicate that the transition to agriculture was a fundamental turning point in the environmental history of Mesoamerica. Tropical forests were reduced by agricultural expansion associated with growing human populations. Also soil loss associated with deforestation and erosion was one of the most consequential environmental impacts associated with population expansion in the Maya lowlands. This environmental crisis ended with the collapse of the Classic Maya society.

Human activity has significantly altered the climate in less than a century. Since 1970 the global average temperature has been rising at a rate of 1.7°C per century, and the rise in global CO2 concentration since 2000 is 10 times faster than any sustained rise in CO2 during the past 800,000 years. Today the most politically unstable countries are also places where environmental degradation affected food production and water supply. Other human societies have succumbed to climate change – like the Akkadians – while others have survived by changing their behavior in response to environmental change. We have the opportunity to protect the future of our own society by learning from the mistakes of our ancestors.

References:

David Evans, Navjit Sagoo, Willem Renema, Laura J. Cotton, Wolfgang Müller, Jonathan A. Todd, Pratul Kumar Saraswati, Peter Stassen, Martin Ziegler, Paul N. Pearson, Paul J. Valdes, Hagit P. Affek. Eocene greenhouse climate revealed by coupled clumped isotope-Mg/Ca thermometry. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2018; 201714744 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1714744115

Nicholas P. Evans et al., Quantification of drought during the collapse of the classic Maya civilization, Science (2018); DOI: 10.1126/science.aas9871 

Will Steffen, et al.; Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene; PNAS (2018) DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1810141115

The sixth mass extinction

Painting of the Dodo by Roelandt Savery executed in ca. 1626 and held at the NHMUK, London.

Mass extinctions had shaped the global diversity of our planet several times during the geological ages. The fossil record indicates that more than 95% of all species that ever lived are now extinct. During times of normal background extinction, the taxa that suffer extinction most frequently are characterized by small geographic ranges and low population abundance. Occasionally extinction events reach a global scale, with many species of all ecological types dying out in a near geological instant. In a conservative palaeontological sense, a mass extinction occurs when extinction rates accelerate relative to origination rates such that over 75% of species disappear within a geologically short interval (typically less than 2 million years).

Over the past 500 years, humans have triggered a wave of extinction, threat, and local population declines that may be comparable with the five previous mass extinctions of Earth’s history. Although anthropogenic climate change is playing a growing role, the primary drivers of modern extinctions seem to be habitat loss, human predation, and introduced species. The term defaunation was created to designate the declining of top predators and herbivores triggered by human activity, that results in a lack of agents that control the components of the ecosystems vegetation.

The percentage of species of land mammals from five major continents/
subcontinents in the period ∼1900–2015 (From Ceballos et al., 2017)

The most recent Living Planet Index (LPI) has estimated that wildlife abundance on the planet decreased by as much as 58% between 1970 and 2012. Several species of mammals that were relatively safe one or two decades ago are now endangered. The highest percentage of decreasing species is concentrated in tropical regions, mostly in the Neotropics and Southeast Asia. In 2016, there were only 7,000 cheetahs in existence, and less than 5,000 Borneo and Sumatran orangutans. Populations of African lion has dropped 43% since 1993, and populations of giraffes dropped from around 115,000 individuals in 1985 to around 97,000 representing what is now recognized to be four species (Giraffa giraffa, G. tippelskirchi, G. reticulata, and G. camelopardalis) in 2015.

Amphibians offer an important signal to the health of biodiversity; when they are stressed and struggling, biodiversity may be under pressure. Decreasing amphibians are prominent in Mexico, Central America, the northern Andes, Brazil, West Africa, Madagascar, India, Indonesia and Philippine. In the case of reptiles, the proportional decline concentrates almost exclusively in Madagascar; and decreasing species of birds are found over large regions of all continents. Other studies document that invertebrates and plants are suffering massive losses of populations and species. Long-term distribution data on moths and four other insect orders in the UK show that a substantial proportion of species have experienced severe range declines in the past several decades. Therefore, the acceleration of extinctions over the past decades, in which humans have played an increasingly important role, has left a number of hard questions about how the Anthropocene should be defined and whether or not extinctions should contribute to this definition.

 

References:

Gerardo CeballosPaul R. Ehrlichand Rodolfo Dirzo; Biological annihilation via the ongoing sixth mass extinction signaled by vertebrate population losses and declines, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2017) doi: 10.1073/pnas.1704949114 

Rodolfo Dirzo et al., Defaunation in the Anthropocene, Science 345, 401 (2014); DOI: 10.1126/science.1251817

 

The Great Acceleration.

 

Iron and Coal, 1855–60, by William Bell Scott illustrates the central place of coal and iron working in the industrial revolution (From Wikimedia Commons)

Iron and Coal, 1855–60, by William Bell Scott illustrates the central place of coal and iron working in the industrial revolution (From Wikimedia Commons)

During a meeting of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP) celebrated in Mexico, in 2000, the Vice-Chair of IGBP, Paul Crutzen, proposed the use of the term Anthropocene to designate the last three centuries of human domination of earth’s ecosystems, and to mark the end of the current Holocene geological epoch. He suggested that the start date of the Anthropocene must be placed near the end of the 18th century, about the time that the industrial revolution began, and noted that such a start date would coincide with the invention of the steam engine by James Watt in 1784.

Although there is no agreement on when the Anthropocene started, researchers accept that the Anthropocene is a time span marked by human interaction with Earth’s biophysical system. It has been defined, primarily, by significant and measurable increases in anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions from ice cores, and other geologic features including synthetic organic compounds and radionuclides. Eugene Stoermer, in an interview in 2012, proposed that the geological mark for the Anthropocene was the isotopic signature of the first atomic bomb tests. Hence,  Anthropocene deposits would be those that may include the globally distributed primary artificial radionuclide signal (Zalasiewicz et al, 2015).

 

anthropocene

Alternative temporal boundaries for the Holocene–Anthropocene boundary (calibrated in thousand of years before present) From Smith 2013

 

Human activity is a major driver of the dynamics of Earth system. After the World War II, the impact of human activity on the global environment dramatically increased. This period associated with very rapid growth in human population, resource consumption, energy use and pollution, has been called the Great Acceleration.

During the Great Acceleration, the atmospheric CO2 concentration grew, from 311 ppm in 1950 to 369 ppm in 2000 (W. Steffen et al., 2011). About one third of the carbon dioxide released by anthropogenic activity is absorbed by the oceans. When CO2 dissolves in seawater, it produce carbonic acid. The carbonic acid dissociates in the water releasing hydrogen ions and bicarbonate. Then, the formation of bicarbonate removes carbonate ions from the water, making them less available for use by organisms. Ocean acidification affects the biogeochemical dynamics of calcium carbonate, organic carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus in the ocean, and will directly impact in a wide range of marine organisms that build shells from calcium carbonate, like planktonic coccolithophores, molluscs,  echinoderms, corals, and coralline algae.

Clastic plastiglomerate containing molten plastic and basalt and coral fragments (Image adapted from P. Corcoran et al., 2014)

Clastic plastiglomerate containing molten plastic and basalt and coral fragments (Image adapted from P. Corcoran et al., 2013)

One important marker for the future geological record is a new type of rock formed by anthropogenically derived materials. This type of rock has been named plastiglomerate, and has been originally described on Kamilo Beach, Hawaii. This anthropogenically influenced material has great potential to form a marker horizon of human pollution, signaling the occurrence of the Anthropocene epoch (Corcoran et al., 2013).

Climate change, shifts in oceanic pH, loss of biodiversity and widespread pollution have all been identified as potential planetary tipping point. Since the industrial revolution, the wave of animal and plant extinctions that began with the late Quaternary has accelerated. Calculations suggest that the current rates of extinction are 100–1000 times above normal, or background levels. We are in the midst of  the so called “Sixth Mass Extinction”.

Dealing with the transition into the Anthropocene requires careful consideration of its social, economic and biotic effects. In his master book L’Evolution Créatrice (1907), French philosopher Henri Bergson, wrote:  “A century has elapsed since the invention of the steam engine, and we are only just beginning to feel the depths of the shock it gave us.”

 

References:

Will Steffen, Wendy Broadgate, Lisa Deutsch, Owen Gaffney, and Cornelia Ludwig. The trajectory of the Anthropocene: The Great Acceleration. The Anthropocene Review, January 16, 2015 DOI: 10.1177/2053019614564785

Jan Zalasiewicz et al. When did the Anthropocene begin? A mid-twentieth century boundary level is stratigraphically optimal. Quaternary International, published online January 12, 2015; doi: 10.1016/j.quaint.2014.11.045

Smith, B.D., Zeder, M.A., The onset of the Anthropocene. Anthropocene (2013),http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ancene.2013.05.001

Ellis, E.C., 2011. Anthropogenic transformation of the terrestrial biosphere. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A 369, 1010–1035.

 

The Anthropocene defaunation process.

 

Richard Owen stands next to the largest of all moa, Dinornis maximus (now D. novaezealandiae). From Wikimedia Commons.

Richard Owen stands next to the largest of all moa, Dinornis maximus (now D. novaezealandiae). From Wikimedia Commons.

In 2000,  Paul Crutzen proposed use the term Anthropocene to designate the last two hundred years of human history and to mark the end of the current Holocene geological epoch. Although there is no agreement on when the Anthropocene started, it has been defined, primarily, by significant and measurable increases in anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions from ice cores and other geologic features including synthetic organic compounds, radionuclides and ocean acidification.

Another marker for the Anthropocene is the current biodiversity crisis. The term defaunation was created to designate the declining of top predators and herbivores triggered by human activity, that results in a lack of agents that control the components of the ecosystems vegetation.

Global population declines in mammals and birds represented in numbers of individuals per 10,000 km2 for mammals and birds (From Dirzo et al., 2014)

Global population declines in mammals and birds (From Dirzo et al., 2014).

Since the industrial revolution, the wave of animal and plant extinctions that began with the late Quaternary has accelerated. Calculations suggest that the current rates of extinction are 100–1000 times above normal, or background levels. We are in the midst of  the so called “Sixth Mass Extinction”.

Although anthropogenic climate change is playing a growing role, the primary drivers of modern extinctions seem to be habitat loss, human predation, and introduced species (Briggs, 2011). The same drivers that contributed to ancient megafaunal and island extinctions.

SConsequences of defaunation (From Dirzo et al., 2014)

The consequences of defaunation (From Dirzo et al., 2014)

 

One of the most famous and well-documented extinctions come from Madagascar. Pygmy hippos, giant tortoises, and large lemurs went extinct due to human hunting or habitat disturbance.  A very interesting study by Burney et al. (2003) tracked the decline of coprophilous Sporormiella fungus spores in sediments due to reduced megafaunal densities after the human arrival on the island. Another well documented case is the Moa extinction in New Zealand. Recent radiocarbon dating and population modeling suggests that their disappearance occurred within 100 years of first human arrival. A large number of  land birds across Oceania suffered a similar fate beginning about 3500 years ago.

Some biologist predict that the sixth extinction  may result in a 50% loss of the plants and animals on our planet by AD 2100, which would cause not only the collapse of ecosystems but also the loss of food economies, and medicinal resources.

References:

Richard N. Holdaway, Morten E. Allentoft, Christopher Jacomb, Charlotte L. Oskam, Nancy R. Beavan, Michael Bunce. An extremely low-density human population exterminated New Zealand moa. Nature Communications, 2014; 5: 5436 DOI: 10.1038/ncomms6436

Rodolfo Dirzo et al., Defaunation in the Anthropocene, Science 345, 401 (2014); DOI: 10.1126/science.1251817

Braje, T.J., Erlandson, J.M., Human acceleration of animal and plant extinctions: A Late Pleistocene, Holocene, and Anthropocene continuum. Anthropocene (2013), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ancene.2013.08.003

 

 

Lessons from the past: Climate change and the Classic Maya collapse.

 

Temple I on The Great Plaza and North Acropolis seen from Temple II in Tikal, Guatemala. From Wikimedia Commons

Temple I on The Great Plaza and North Acropolis seen from Temple II in Tikal, Guatemala. From Wikimedia Commons

The earth’s climate has already reached a tipping point. Glaciers  from the Greenland and Antarctic Ice Sheets are fading away, dumping 260 billion metric tons of water into the ocean every year. The ocean acidification is occurring at a rate faster than at any time in the last 300 million years, and  the patterns of rainfall and drought are changing and undermining food security which have major implications for human health, welfare and social infrastructure. These atmospheric changes follow an upward trend in anthropogenically induced CO2 and CH4.

The first scientists that explored the relationship between carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere and global warming were Svante Arrhenius and Thomas Chamberlain at the end of the nineteenth century. Now, the current rate of increase of CO2 emissions has no precedent in the geological record and there is no perfect analogue from the past for the temporal evolution of future climate. However, we still can learn from historical and archeological records how societies had responded in the past to the unintended consequences of human action on the environment.

Rainfall record for the Maya region (Kennett et al., 2012)

Human activity took precedence over natural climate change as the driving force behind plant and animal extinctions with the advent of agriculture and the domestication of animals. There are several cases in the past where anthropogenic environmental change has caused the collapse of economic, social and political systems. A good example of that is the collapse of Classic Maya political centers between AD 750 and 1000.

Paleoecological records indicate that the transition to agriculture was a fundamental turning point in the environmental history of Mesoamerica. Tropical forest were reduced by agricultural expansion associated with growing human populations. Also soil loss associated with deforestation and erosion was one of the most consequential environmental impacts associated with population expansion in the Maya lowlands (Kennett, 2013). This environmental crisis ended with the collapse of the Classic Maya society.

Today the most politically unstable countries are also places where environmental degradation affected food production and water supply. Other human societies have succumbed to climate change – like the Akkadians –  while others have survived by changing their behavior in response to environmental change. We have opportunity to protect the future of our own society by learning from the mistakes of our ancestors. International cooperation is one of the keys.  As Trevor Manuel, a South African government minister and co-chair of the Global Ocean Commission stated: “Governments must respond as urgently as they do to national security threats – in the long run, the impacts are just as important”.

 

References:

Kennett, D.J., Beach, T.P., Archeological and environmental lessons for the Anthropocene from the Classic Maya collapse. Anthropocene (2014), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ancene.2013.12.002

M. Morlighem, E. Rignot, J Mouginot, H. Seroussi, and E. Larour. Deeply incised submarine glacial valleys beneath the Greenland Ice Sheet. Nat. Geosci., 2014

Malcolm McMillan, Andrew Shepherd, Aud Sundal, Kate Briggs, Alan Muir, Andrew Ridout, Anna Hogg, Duncan Wingham. Increased ice losses from Antarctica detected by CryoSat-2. Geophysical Research Letters, 2014; DOI: 10.1002/2014GL060111

D. J. Lunt, H. Elderfield, R. Pancost, A. Ridgwell, G. L. Foster, A. Haywood, J. Kiehl, N. Sagoo, C. Shields, E. J. Stone, and P. Valdes, Introduction: Warm climates of the past: a lesson for the future? (2013), Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A 28, doi: 10.1098/rsta.2013.0146

Brief history of the Ocean Acidification through time.

Corals one of the most vulnerable creatures in the ocean. Photo Credit: Katharina Fabricius/Australian Institute of Marine Science

Corals one of the most vulnerable creatures in the ocean. Photo Credit: Katharina Fabricius/Australian Institute of Marine Science

At the end of the nineteenth century Svante Arrhenius and Thomas Chamberlain were among the few scientists that explored the relationship between carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere and global warming. About one third of the carbon dioxide released by anthropogenic activity is absorbed by the oceans. But the CO2 uptake lowers the pH and alters the chemical balance of the oceans. This phenomenon is called ocean acidification, and is occurring at a rate faster than at any time in the last 300 million years (Gillings, 2014; Hönisch et al. 2012). Acidification affects the biogeochemical dynamics of calcium carbonate, organic carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus in the ocean as well as the seawater chemical will directly impact in a wide range of marine organisms that build shells from calcium carbonate, like planktonic coccolithophores and pteropods and other molluscs,  echinoderms, corals, and coralline algae.

The geologic record of ocean acidification provide valuable insights into potential biotic impacts and time scales of recovery.  Rapid additions of carbon dioxide during extreme events in Earth history, including the end-Permian mass extinction (252 million years ago) and the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM, 56 million years ago) may have driven surface waters to undersaturation. But, there’s  no perfect analog for our present crisis, because we are living in an “ice house” that started 34 million years ago  with the growth of ice sheets on Antarctica, and this cases corresponded to events initiated during “hot house” (greenhouse) intervals of Earth history.

Coccolithophores exposed to differing levels of acidity. Adapted by Macmillan Publishers Ltd: Nature Publishing Group, Riebesell, U., et al., Nature 407, 2000.

Coccolithophores exposed to differing levels of acidity. Adapted by Macmillan Publishers Ltd: Nature Publishing Group, Riebesell, U., et al., Nature 407, 2000.

The end-Permian extinction is the most severe biotic crisis in the fossil record, with as much as 95% of the marine animal species and a similarly high proportion of terrestrial plants and animals going extinct . This great crisis ocurred about 252 million years ago (Ma) during an episode of global warming. The cause or causes of the Permian extinction remain a mystery but new data indicates that the extinction had a duration of 60,000 years and may be linked to massive volcanic eruptions from the Siberian Traps. The same study found evidence that 10,000 years before the die-off, the ocean experienced a pulse of light carbon that most likely led to a spike of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This could have led to ocean acidification, warmer water temperatures that effectively killed marine life.

The early Aptian Oceanic Anoxic Event (120 million years ago) was an interval of dramatic change in climate and ocean circulation. The cause of this event was the eruption of the Ontong Java Plateau in the western Pacific, wich led to a major increase in atmospheric pCO2 and ocean acidification. This event was characterized by the occurrence of organic-carbon-rich sediments on a global basis along with evidence for warming and dramatic change in nanoplankton assemblages. Several oceanic anoxic events (OAEs) are documented in Cretaceous strata in the Canadian Western Interior Sea.

major changes in plankton assembledge

The Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM; 55.8 million years ago) was a short-lived (~ 200,000 years) global warming event. Temperatures increased by 5-9°C. It was marked by the largest deep-sea mass extinction among calcareous benthic foraminifera in the last 93 million years. Similarly, planktonic foraminifer communities at low and high latitudes show reductions in diversity. The PETM is also associated with dramatic changes among the calcareous plankton,characterized by the appearance of transient nanoplankton taxa of heavily calcified forms of Rhomboaster spp., Discoaster araneus, and D. anartios as well as Coccolithus bownii, a more delicate form

The current rate of the anthropogenic carbon input  is probably greater than during the PETM, causing a more severe decline in ocean pH and saturation state. Also the biotic consequences of the PETM were fairly minor, while the current rate of species extinction is already 100–1000 times higher than would be considered natural. This underlines the urgency for immediate action on global carbon emission reductions.

References:

Kump, L.R., T.J. Bralower, and A. Ridgwell. 2009. Ocean acidification in deep time. Oceanography 22(4):94–107, http://dx.doi.org/10.5670/oceanog.2009.100

Kroeker, K. J. et al. Impacts of ocean acidification on marine organisms: quantifying sensitivities and interaction with warming. Glob. Change Biol. 19, 1884–1896 (2013).

Payne JL, Turchyn AV, Paytan A, Depaolo DJ, Lehrmann DJ, Yu M, Wei J, Calcium isotope constraints on the end-Permian mass extinction, Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2010 May 11;107(19):8543-8. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0914065107. Epub 2010 Apr 26.

Zeebe RE and Zachos JC. 2013 Long-term legacy ofmassive carbon input to the Earth system: Anthropocene versus Eocene. Phil Trans R Soc A 371: 20120006.http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsta.2012.0006.

Daniel H. Rothman, Gregory P. Fournier, Katherine L. French, Eric J. Alm, Edward A. Boyle, Changqun Cao, and Roger E. Summons (2014) “Methanogenic burst in the end-Permian carbon cycle,” PNAS doi: 10.1073/pnas.1318106111

Michael R Gillings, Elizabeth L Hagan-Lawson, The cost of living in the Anthropocene,  Earth Perspectives 2014, DOI 10.1186/2194-6434-1-2

 

The sixth mass extinction: the human impact on biodiversity

800px-Ice_age_fauna_of_northern_Spain_-_Mauricio_Antón

Woolly mammoths in a late Pleistocene landscape in northern Spain (Author: Mauricio Antón) From Wikipedia Commons

At the beginning of the nineteenth century George Cuvier, the great French anatomist and paleontologist,  suggested that periodic “revolutions”, or catastrophes had befallen the Earth and wiped out a number of species, but under the influence of Lyell’s uniformitarianism, Cuvier’s ideas were rejected as “poor science”. One century after Cuvier definition of catastrophism, Chamberlain proposed that faunal major changes through time were under the control of epeirogenic movement of the continents and ocean basins. Despite Chamberlain’s article, the modern study of mass extinction did not begin until the middle of the twentieth century with a series of papers focused on the Permian extinction. One of the most popular of that time was “Revolutions in the history of life” written by Norman Newell in 1967.

Mass extinctions had shaped the global diversity of our planet several times during the geological ages. They are major patterns in macroevolution. Andrew Knoll defines them as perturbations of the biosphere which seem instantaneous when it is observed through the geological record.

The ‘‘Big Five’’ extinction events as identified by Raup and Sepkoski (1982)

The ‘‘Big Five’’ extinction events as identified by Raup and Sepkoski (1982)

In 1982, Jack Sepkoski and David M. Raup identified five mass extinctions. The first took place at the end of the Ordovician period, about 450 million years ago.  Now, according to the current rates of extinction, we are in the midst of  the so called “Sixth Mass Extinction”.

Mass extinctions are probably due to a set of different possible causes like basaltic super-eruptions, impacts of asteroids, global climate changes, or continental drift. But now, a group of scientists like Edward O. Wilson and Niles Eldredge identified post-industrial humans as the driving force behind the current and on-going mass extinction (Braje, 2013).

The human arrival was a “key component” in the extinction of the megafauna during the late Quaternary. In North America, approximately 34 genera (72%) of large mammals went extinct between 13,000 and 10,500 years ago, including mammoths, mastodons, giant ground sloths, horses, tapirs, camels, bears, saber-tooth cats, and a variety of other animals. South America lost an even larger number and percentage, with 50 megafauna genera (83%) becoming extinct at about the same time.

 

Richard Owen stands next to the largest of all moa, Dinornis maximus (now D. novaezealandiae). From Wikimedia Commons.

Richard Owen stands next to the largest of all moa, Dinornis maximus (now D. novaezealandiae). From Wikimedia Commons.

Other extinctions on island ecosystems around the world are result from direct human hunting, anthropogenic burning and landscape clearing, and the translocation of new plants and animals. One of the most famous and well-documented of these extinctions come from Madagascar. Pygmy hippos, giant tortoises, and large lemurs went extinct due to human hunting or habitat disturbance. A very interesting study by Burney et al. (2003) tracked the decline of coprophilous Sporormiella fungus spores in sediments due to reduced megafaunal densities after the human arrival on the island.  Another well documented case is the Moa extinction in New Zealand. Recent radiocarbon dating and population modeling suggests that their disappearance occurred within 100 years of first human arrival. A large number of  landbirds across Oceania suffered a similar fate beginning about 3500 years ago.

The anthropogenic effects increasingly took precedence over natural climate change as the driving forces behind plant and animal extinctions with the advent of agriculture and the domestication of animals.

The Panamanian golden frog (Atelopus zeteki). Credit: Brian Gratwicke. From Wikimedia Commons

The Panamanian golden frog (Atelopus zeteki). Credit: Brian Gratwicke. From Wikimedia Commons

Amphibians offer an important signal to the health of biodiversity; when they are stressed and struggling, biodiversity may be under pressure.   Today, they are the world’s most endangered class of animal, while corals have had a dramatic increase in risk of extinction in recent years. Some biologist predict that the sixth extinction  may result in a 50% loss of the plants and animals on our planet by AD 2100, which would cause not only the collapse of ecosystems but also the loss of food economies, and medicinal resources.

The acceleration of extinctions over the past 50,000 years, in which humans have played an increasingly important role, has left a number of hard questions about how the Anthropocene should be defined and whether or not extinctions should contribute to this definition (Erlandson, 2013)

 

References:

T.J., Erlandson, J.M., Human acceleration of animal and plant extinctions: A Late Pleistocene, Holocene, and Anthropocene continuum. Anthropocene (2013)

A.D. Barnosky, N. Matzke, S. Tomiya, G.O.U. Wogan, B. Swartz, T.B. Quental, C. Marshall, J.L. McGuire, E.L. Lindsey, K.C. Maguire, B. Mersey, E.A. Ferrer, Has the earth’s sixth mass extinction already arrived?, Nature, 471 (2011), pp. 51–57.

Mayhew, Peter J.; Gareth B. Jenkins, Timothy G. Benton (January 7, 2008). “A long-term association between global temperature and biodiversity, origination and extinction in the fossil record”. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 275 (1630): 47–53.

D.A. Burney, L.P. Burney, L.R. Godfrey, W.L. Jungers, S.M. Goodman, H.T. Wright, A.J.T. Jull, A chronology for late prehistoric Madagascar, J. Hum. Evol., 47 (2004), pp. 25–63

When did the Anthropocene begin?

Image by Craig Mayhew and Robert Simmon (source NASA Goddard Photo and Video/Flickr)

Image by Craig Mayhew and Robert Simmon (source NASA Goddard Photo and Video/Flickr)

The profound impact of human activity has motivated a concept that has been slowly emerging in science: human activities are a significant geological force.  In 1873,  Antonio Stoppani, an Italian Catholic priest and geologist, coined the “Anthropozoic era” to identify  the increasing power and impact of humanity on the Earth’s systems. Few years later, Joseph LeConte in 1879 proposed the term Psychozoic to describe the same phenomenon,  in 1922 Pavlov used the word Anthropogene, and Vernadsky in 1962 used  the term Noosphere. In 2000 Paul Crutzen – during a meeting of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP) in Mexico – proposed use the term Anthropocene to designate the last two hundred years of human history and to mark the end of the current Holocene geological epoch. He and Stoermer placed the beginning of the Anthropocene at A.D. 1750–1800, when the Greenland ice cores registered a dramatic increase of carbon dioxide and methane.

anthropocene

Alternative temporal boundaries for the Holocene–Anthropocene boundary (calibrated in thousand of years before present) From Smith 2013

Ruddiman and Thomson (2001) argued that before the industrial revolution, human societies had a great influence on the earth’s atmosphere. They identified the inefficient wet rice agriculture as the most plausible source of increased anthropogenic methane input to the atmosphere while the rise in CO2 is attributed to the expansion of agricultural landscapes, almost 8000 years ago.

But other scientists pushed the boundary thousand of years before, like Christopher Doughty. He proposed in 2010 that the increase in Birch (Betula) pollen almost 14000 years ago reduced the reflectivity of the land surface causing a regional warming of 1º C. This phenomenon was associated with the disappearance of megafauna and because the extinction of mammoths is  linked to human predation, “human influence on global climate predate the origin of agriculture” (Doughty et al., 2010)

800px-Ice_age_fauna_of_northern_Spain_-_Mauricio_Antón

In 2011, Giacomo Certini and Riccardo Scalenghe  used soils to identifying the base of the Anthropocene in stratigraphic sequences, but this method was questioned due to the poor preservation potential of soils. And in an interview in 2012, Eugene Stoermer considered that the geological mark for the Anthropocene was the isotopic signature of the first atomic bomb tests.

Because the different start dates for the Anthropocene a consensus solution to establishing its lower boundary was proposed: “The Holocene and Anthropocene epochs could on practical terms be merged into the Holocene/Anthropocene epoch, easily and efficiently encompassing 10,000 years of human modification of the earth’s biosphere” (Ellis, 2013).

References:

Smith, B.D., Zeder, M.A., The onset of the Anthropocene. Anthropocene (2013), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ancene.2013.05.001

Ellis, E.C., 2011. Anthropogenic transformation of the terrestrial biosphere. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A 369, 1010–1035.

Link:

The Anthropocene: Humankind as a Turning Point for Earth http://www.astrobio.net/interview/5530/the-anthropocene-humankind-as-a-turning-point-for-earth