Extinction-level events can be caused by man

Extinction-level events can be caused by man

An extinction-level event is one that destroys entire species. Calamities that might cause this kind of massive destruction include an impact from an asteroid or meteor or the shifting of the magnetic fields around the planet. These natural events are out of our control, but mankind is not without the ability to wreak havoc on the planet and cause species extinction.

On April 28, 1986, the world first heard of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor explosion that occurred near the town of Pripyat, Ukraine. The accident had actually occurred two days prior, but the Soviet authorities had failed to report it initially.

The story was made public as a result of investigations prompted by a Swedish chemist at the Forsmark Nuclear Power Plant north of Stockholm, Sweden. The chemist noticed the radiation detectors of the Swedish plant had gone off, indicating a possible malfunction at the plant.

After confirming the radiation was not coming from the power plant nor from a bomb detonation, Swedish diplomats contacted Moscow. Initially they denied the explosion, but after Sweden threatened to file an official alert with the International Atomic Energy Authority, the Soviet Union admitted their rector had come perilously close to a meltdown during a safety exercise. A steam explosion occurred and exposed a burning nuclear core.

As the radioactive plume made its way toward Sweden, rain caused the radiation to fall to the ground. The contamination was especially heavy in parts of North and Central Sweden. It was estimated Northern Sweden absorbed 5 percent of the radioactive Cesium-137 released into the air. This isotope is a carcinogen.

As a result of concerns over food contamination, reindeer farmers in Sweden slaughtered their animals immediately before they had a chance to ingest contaminated moss. After that year most of the reindeer meat was too contaminated for sale. Almost 35 years later, some reindeer still contain too much radiation to be consumed.

On March 11, 2011, the world would again witness a major nuclear accident at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. An earthquake and subsequent tsunami caused power outages and flooded the emergency generators needed to run coolant pumps for the nuclear reactors. The lack of cooling caused three nuclear meltdowns and three hydrogen explosions.

This resulted in the evacuation of 154,000 residents in a 6-mile radius. Radiation was released into the atmosphere, as well as the Pacific Ocean. This accident was determined to be preventable, and the parent company, TEPCO, was held responsible for not taking stronger safety measures. The accident, like Chernobyl, received a severity level of 7, which is the highest ranking on the international Nuclear Event Scale, which runs from 0-7.

Radionuclides from Fukushima have been found as far away as Pacific waters on the U.S. West Coast, British Columbia and the Gulf of Alaska. NOAA scientists have found “trace amounts of Fukushima-linked radionuclides in muscle tissue of fur seals on Alaska’s St. Paul Island in the Bering Sea. For the local residents, there still remains risk of developing thyroid cancer from exposure to radioactive iodine.

Those of us who grew up during the cold war era lived with some anxiety, wondering if a nation would start an atomic war that would end life on earth. This is still a possibility in today’s world, but there are other less obvious ways in which we could destroy life on earth.

Many scientists believe man-made climate change is driving the next massive extinction-level event. Andrew Klikson, a paleoclimate scientist from the Australian National University, points out our planet has seen other mass extinctions due to increased carbon-dioxide levels.

Massive volcanic explosions just before the rise of the dinosaurs wiped out 34 percent of all genera. Approximately 201 million years ago, these explosions greatly increased carbon-dioxide levels and ocean acidity.

Klikson said, “As our anthropogenic global emissions of CO2 are rising, at a rate for which no precedence is known from the geological record with the exception of asteroid impacts, another wave of extinctions is unfolding.”

We don’t need scientists to point out something drastic is happening to our planet. There are less insects in the summer months, less birds and less variety of bird species than when we were kids, less snowfall in northern regions, more extreme high-temperature events, more torrential rainfall events, more fires, and each new year, average high-temperature records are broken.

As if we needed another reminder of how we are driving species extinction, Australia’s catastrophic fires now stare us in the face. Currently over 14 million acres have been destroyed, an area twice the size of the country of Wales.

An estimated half a billion animals have died including 8,000 koalas. Ecologist Sarah Legge of the Australian National University said, “Many dozens of threatened species have been hit hard, and their entire distribution has been burnt.”

The continent, home to many unique species, suffers from the same climate-change-denial leadership as the U.S.

Climate change, along with these fires, may push many species into extinction. Legge pointed out bird deaths occur directly from the fires but also indirectly as breeding trees and foods like invertebrates are gone. The small mammals lose cover and fall prey to feral cats and foxes.

The scientists say the fires are “homogenizing the landscape.” Three-fourths of the threatened species are plants. There has been a “massive pulse of carbon dioxide” into the atmosphere equivalent to half of Australia’s annual greenhouse-gas emissions.

Just like the nuclear accidents the world has witnessed, the fires in Australia will affect us all to some degree. We all live on this planet, and the extinction of just one species anywhere means one less thread in our web of life. How many threads will we cut before we destroy the fabric of our lives?

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