When life nearly died

Posted: 18 June 2003

Author: Michael J. Benton
Thames and Hudson, 2003, £16.95 (hb)

Global warming over the next hundred years could trigger a catastrophe which rivals the worst mass extinction in the planet's entire history, according to new evidence chronicled in this new book.

coverScientists have discovered that a mere six degrees of global warming was enough to wipe out up to 95 per cent of the species which were alive on Earth at the end of the Permian period, 251 million years ago.

If nothing is done to curb greenhouse gas emissions, principally carbon dioxide, which cause global warming, up to six degrees of warming is now predicted for the next century, warn UN scientists from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [actual forecast figures: 1.4 to 5.8 degrees °C].

The end-Permian mass extinction is now thought to have been caused by gigantic volcanic eruptions, which triggered a runaway greenhouse effect and nearly put an end to life on Earth. Conditions in what geologists have termed this 'post-apocalyptic greenhouse' were so severe that only one large land animal was left alive, and it took 100 million years for species diversity to return to former levels.

This dramatic new finding is revealed in this new book by Bristol University's Head of Earth Sciences, Professor Michael Benton, which chronicles the geological efforts leading up to the discovery and its potential implications.

"The end-Permian crisis nearly marked the end of life. It's estimated that fewer than one in ten species survived. Geologists are only now coming to appreciate the severity of this global catastrophe and to understand how and why so many species died out so quickly," says Professor Benton.

"This is a global emergency," he warns. "We are heading for disaster, and yet the world is still on fossil fuel autopilot. There needs to be an immediate phase-out of coal, oil and gas, and a phase-in of clean energy sources. People can no longer ignore this looming catastrophe."

  • The latest climatological research suggests that global warming could be even worse than six degrees celsius. A recent meeting of scientists in Berlin led to estimates of 7 to 10 degrees. See New Scientist magazine, 'Heat will soar as haze fades', by Fred Pearce, 7 June 2003.

    Reviewer: Mark Lynas

    Reviewer Info: Mark Lynas is a specialist in Climate Change. His new book, High Tide: News from a warming world, will be published by Flamingo/HarperCollins in March 2004.