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Peter Ward on mass extinctions in NYMag

Wednesday, July 12, 2017 - 11:30

‘The Models Are Too Conservative’: Paleontologist Peter Ward on What Past Mass Extinctions Can Teach Us About Climate Change Today

Full article by David Wallace-Wells

This week, to accompany our cover story on worst-case climate scenarios, we’re publishing a series of extended interviews with climatologists on the subject — most of them from the “godfather generation” of scientists who first raised the alarm about global warming several decades ago.

Peter Ward, professor at the University of Washington Department of Biology, is one of the paleontologists responsible for overturning our understanding of most of the Earth’s mass extinctions, which, long thought to be caused by asteroid impacts, turned out to have been the result of climate change produced by greenhouse gases (all but the one that killed the dinosaurs, anyway). 

Could you first walk me through the analogy you made in that op-ed for the Post — exactly how our current situation could lead to the end-Permian Extinction.

My own sense in the short run — strangely enough, the most dangerous thing facing us isn’t the extinction scenario, since that’s centuries in the future. What scares me more is the economic effect of simple sea-level rise. CNN did a very interesting article some years ago about how much it would cost to retrofit ports around the world for a six-foot sea-level rise. It’s literally trillions of dollars. Not only docks, but every airport facing the ocean—Sydney, China, San Francisco especially.

Secondly there’s the effect on human food. If there’s a six-foot sea-level rise, it’s astonishing how much food will be wiped out — most rice is in low-lying areas, for instance.

That’s in the short term — what about the long term?

The long term is these greenhouse extinctions are devastating. The most recent one was the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, and that was caused almost entirely by methane. So the scariest thing we’re seeing today is the liberation of methane from higher latitudes, and it’s happening far faster than anybody ever predicted.

Did you see the news about the Larsen ice shelf? It’s starting to break off. I spent four expeditions down there, just to the north of that, and the amount of retreat is huge. The reason this is important is Antarctica has always been used by the naysayers to say, At least in Antarctica we’re not seeing retreating glaciers. Well, now we are — we really are.

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