Earth’s Next Mass Extinction Might Be 400 Years Away

mass extinction

With all the stuff in the news about solar flares, rising sea levels, and asteroids zipping by Earth, a lot of people are probably getting pretty nervous about the end of times. 

And there are certainly a lot of ways it could go down. A powerful geomagnetic storm could render our communications and electronics useless, leading to mass hysteria. Or, an asteroid could put us right next to the dinosaurs. 

But the future doesn’t have to be all fire and brimstone. New studies have shown that the timeline for Earth’s next mass extinction is quite a long ways away, and contradicts some of the other climate crisis predictions. 

This isn’t to say that we can slack off right now and continue on our path–we certainly can not–but it gives a bit more time to course correct. 

Rising Temperatures Write Our Future

Climate scientists in Japan have come up with new data that suggests that Earth’s next mass extinction might not take place for another few centuries. 

Kunio Kaiho, a professor in the Department of Earth Sciences at Tohoku University, has been studying the events that led to the previous mass extinction events in Earth’s history in hopes of better understanding what the future holds. 

His findings have suggested that for intense climate change events, temperatures had to drop by 7 degrees Celsius or rise by at least 9 degrees Celsius to spark an extinction-level event. 

For context, the previously accepted average temperature rise to trigger a mass extinction was 5.2 degrees Celsius. Kaiho’s estimates certainly give us a much broader timeline than we previously thought. 

But even though we might have a breath of fresh air for a few more years, that doesn’t mean we’re not quickly approaching the next big, worldwide natural disaster. Let’s take a look at the past extinction events so we can see what’s potentially in store:

Sixth One Is The Charm

In all of Earth’s history (or what we are able to assume about Earth’s history), there have been five major extinction events. 

According to the American Museum of Natural History, the five mass extinctions can be identified as follows:

  • Ordovician-silurian extinction – 440 million years ago
  • Denovian extinction – 365 million years ago
  • Permian-triassic extinction – 250 million years ago
  • Triassic-jurassic extinction – 210 million years ago
  • Cretaceous-tertiary extinction – 65 million years ago

The last extinction, which occurred more than 65 million years ago, is thought to have eradicated 50% of all plant and animal species that were alive at the time. And in total, all extinction events have destroyed upwards of 99% of all life, from plants and animals, to insects and single cell organisms.

Most of these extinctions were the result of a few things. Drastic changes in temperature caused sudden ice ages or sweltering heat waves. Other phenomena also played a part in a few mass extinctions, stuff like meteorite strikes or super-volcano eruptions. 

Kaiho and his colleagues believe that the upcoming sixth extinction will be quite hot, with subsequent sea level changes due to melting ice caps. But, their estimation puts the 6th event sometime in 2500, which is far enough away that we’ll never live to see it. 

Timelines Can Change

But, just because our children and grandchildren might not live to see the world end, doesn’t mean there won’t be a build up to the main event. 

Loss of biodiversity is the first big indicator of upcoming extinctions. Data gathered from thousands of different sources suggests that there are more than 40,000 different species threatened with extinction right now, and another 900 that we’ve already lost since the 1500s. 

Things that we grew up knowing and caring for, like Monarch butterflies, might be a thing of the past by the time our grandchildren are old enough to care. 

Kaiho’s prediction of 2500 gives us less than 500 years to right our path, and far less than that if we stay on our current trajectory. In his study, he claimed that the Earth’s temperature is already set to increase more than 4 degrees Celsius by the end of 2100. 

And isn’t that what climate scientists have been saying for years? That our Earth is at a saturation point with pollution, greenhouse gasses, and other human-made problems. 

So even if Kaiho is right, and we have much more time than we thought we did, we can’t slack off now. The next few years are critical for the future. Humanity might survive until 2500, but what will those 470-some years look like? Hot, dry, and filled with plague?

We see so many science fiction stories that portray stark white, technologically god-like societies, or the opposite side, with bleak, dystopian politics and barren wastelands. 

What we really need is a goal, concrete and attainable. Personally, I think Solarpunk presents that goal for now–and while it might not be the end-all-be-all, it’s certainly a start.