March 30, 2005
Planet Earth Is Overdue For The 62 Million Year Extinction Cycle

Some European environmentalists like to worry about genetically modified foods. A larger group of people like to worry about global warming. FuturePundit, far more focused on risks to his own life, is worried we don't have the means to produce large numbers of vaccine shots in response to a dangerous flu strain (like the Avian influenza that might currently be spreading in North Korea). Well, these are bush league catastrophe worries. You want to have a heftier and more manly worry? Time to sink your teeth into a massive recurring pattern of extinction that has been happening once every 62 million years for over 500 million years and which is currently overdue!

BERKELEY, CA – A detailed and extensive new analysis of the fossil records of marine animals over the past 542 million years has yielded a stunning surprise. Biodiversity appears to rise and fall in mysterious cycles of 62 million years for which science has no satisfactory explanation. The analysis, performed by researchers with the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) and the University of California at Berkeley, has withstood thorough testing so that confidence in the results is above 99-percent.

Think about a massive die-off of most of the species on planet Earth that would make environmentalist fears of human-inflicted damage to the environment seem puny in comparison. We are talking about a die-off that would make a first class Hollywood disaster movie. Heck, it could even be made into a series of movies and civilization progressively collapses as our stars fight their way toward the few areas where humans are managing to hang on.

Muller and Rohde have entertained many hypotheses for what might have caused the die-off. But their theorizing is still at the stage of hunches. Either periodic passage of the solar system through molecular clouds or periodic massive volcanic eruptions could be behind the massive die-offs.

Muller and Rohde have been working on this study for nearly two years, and first discovered the 62 million year biodiversity cycle in November, 2003. They spent the next year trying to either knock it down or explain it. Despite examining 14 possible geophysical and astronomical causes of the cycles, no clear explanation emerged. Muller and Rohde each has his own favorite guess.

Muller suspects there is an astrophysical driving mechanism behind the 62 million year periodicity.

“Comets could be perturbed from the Oort cloud by the periodic passage of the solar system through molecular clouds, Galactic arms, or some other structure with strong gravitational influence,” Muller said. “But there is no evidence even suggesting that such a structure exists.”

Rohde prefers a geophysical driver, possibly massive volcanic eruptions triggered by the rise of plumes to the earth’s surface. Plumes are upwellings of hot material from near the earth’s core that some scientists believe have the potential to reoccur on a periodic basis.

“My hunch, far from proven,” Rohde said, “is that every 62 million years the earth is releasing a burst of heat in the form of a plume formation event, and that when those plumes reach the surface they result in a major episode of flood volcanism. Such volcanism certainly has the potential to cause extinctions, but, right now there isn't enough geologic evidence to know whether flood basalts or plumes have been recurring at the right frequency.”

We also have a 140 million year cycle to worry about.

Muller and Rohde also found a second, less pronounced diversity cycle of 140 million years.

"The 140 million year cycle is also strong, but we see only four oscillations in our 542 million year record,” Muller said. “This means there is some chance that it could be accidental, rather than driven by some external mechanism."

If it is real, the 140 million year fossil diversity cycle could be tied to a reported 140 million year cycle in Ice Ages. Said Rohde, "It is also possible that this 140 million year fossil diversity cycle is driven by passage through the arms of the Milky Way galaxy".

John Alroy is skeptical of the Muller and Rohde analysis.

John Alroy coordinates the Paleobiology Database at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis in Santa Barbara, California. He is skeptical about the accuracy of Rohde and Muller's statistical analysis. He does, however, applaud their exhaustive search for the cycle's cause.

The bad news is if Rohde and Muller are correct then we are overdue for the next big die-off.

Their research has shown that every 62 million years - plus or minus 3m years - creatures are wiped from the planet's surface in massive numbers.

And given that the last great extinction occurred 65m years ago, when dinosaurs and thousands of other creatures abruptly disappeared, the study suggests humanity faces a fairly pressing danger. Even worse, scientists have no idea about its source.

I am hoping that Muller's explanation turns out to be correct. Why? Muller's astrophysical mechanism would be easier to defend against. Suppose this mechanism could be proven to be at work in the waves of extinctions. We could develop a number of methods for deflecting asteroids and comets. The key to such a defense system would be early detection of incoming objects. We would need many great space telescopes constantly scanning the sky looking for an approaching cloud of rocks headed our way. Then space lasers or particle beams could deflect incoming objects or automated nuclear-powered spaceships could be sent out to intercept and nudge them away from a collision with Earth.

Rohde's massive volcanic eruption mechanism would be a lot more difficult to defend against. It is unlikely we could stop a massive eruption. If we knew where the eruption was coming we could move away from it. But we'd be left with the need to find ways to clean up the polluted atmosphere more rapidly in order to prevent a long period of freezing darkness. Perhaps if we knew a massive eruption was coming in advance we could build tens of thousands of nuclear reactors and use their power to run massive air filtration systems on the atmosphere. One year's output of the US economy would pay for the construction of 10,000 $1 billion dollar 1 Gigawatt nuclear reactors. How much air filtration could be done with 10,000 Gigawatts of electric power?

The human race is still at a stage of development where it is vulnerable to natural disasters. We are much more vulnerable than we need to be. Even with our current level of technology we could be doing a lot of fairly cheap stuff to reduce our risks from a few natural threats. For example, a price that is in the range of hundreds of millions of dollars per year we could construct an impressive set of satellite and ground-based stations for detecting 99.9+% of asteroids long before they could threaten Earth. A similar sized expenditure for vaccine technology development would lead to vaccine production techniques that would greatly lower the risks of a big human die-off from natural strains of influenza and probably from some other naturally occurring pathogens as well.

Looking about 50 or 100 years into the future I do not expect either asteroids or naturally occurring pathogens to still have the potential to kill millions of people. Our technologies will be so advanced and our accumulated wealth so great that the cost of defending against both these threats will be so low that the defenses against these threats will be created even without a strong political consensus in support of building the needed defenses. At some point in the 21st century our greater threat of extinction will come from our own technologies in the hands of the most malicious and reckless members of humanity.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2005 March 30 02:32 PM  Dangers Natural General


Comments
toot said at March 30, 2005 3:01 PM:

From reading all the dire predictions of the conservationists, I thought we were in the midst of a great species die-off, caused by the appropriation by man-kind (or woman-kind) of too much of the environment. Wouldn't that count for something?

PrahaPartizan said at March 30, 2005 4:08 PM:

Wouldn't trying to explain the source of the die-offs in terms of internal volcanology be rather difficult? Expecting heated plumes to rise to the planetary exterior on any sort of regular basis would seem to be demanding a bit greater regularity than might be expected from an inherently chaotic process -- internal turbulence.

An extra-planetary source driven merely by solar system gravity would seem to offer a more reasonable explanation for the die-offs. The volcanology events could easily be explained by the result of a comet or meteor impact, which would ring the planet like a bell and prompt large upwellings of magma opposite the impact point.

Dimitar Vesselinov said at March 30, 2005 6:44 PM:

Existential Risks

"Because of accelerating technological progress, humankind may be rapidly approaching a critical phase in its history. In addition to well-known threats such as a nuclear holocaust, the prospects of radically transforming technologies like nanotech systems and machine intelligence present us with unprecedented opportunities and risks. Our future, and whether we will have a future at all, may well be determined by how we deal with these challenges.

This tribe is an open forum for a general discussion of human extinction scenarios - a discussion of all possible risks, their viability or implausibility, and what we can do to avoid them. Contributing tribe members are highly encouraged to read Nick Bostrom's essay, 'Existential Risks: Analyzing Human Extinction Scenarios and Related Hazards' which can be found at http://www.nickbostrom.com/existential/risks.html."

http://existentialrisks.tribe.net

See also:
http://divedi.blogspot.com/2005/03/existential-risks.html

Alternate Energy Blog said at March 31, 2005 5:52 AM:

Shouldn't FuturePundit be more concerned about more probable threats to his life - like automobile safety?

James

DigitalDjigit said at March 31, 2005 6:31 AM:

"Think about a massive die-off of most of the species on planet Earth that would make environmentalist fears of human-inflicted damage to the environment seem puny in comparison."

That's where you are wrong. Human-inflicted damage is making previous die-offs look puny in comparison. We are talking something like a fourth of all species dead in less than a century. This is less than a blink on a geological timescale.
How about destroying 2/3 of our environment within that timescale? That's what a recent report claims, see here:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/international/story/0,3604,1447863,00.html

MayaChicken said at March 31, 2005 8:14 AM:

“Comets could be perturbed from the Oort cloud by the periodic passage of the solar system through molecular clouds, Galactic arms, or some other structure with strong gravitational influence,” Muller said. “But there is no evidence even suggesting that such a structure exists.”

.... not entirely correct.

In 2012 the Maya calendar ends. As in game over. It's supposed to correspond to a passing through the galictic plane, causing great havoc.

Strangely, I do believe in such admittedly weird-seeming cultural vestiges of ancient wisdom.

just google for maya 'calendar galactic plane' for loads of some serious and mostly not so serious info.

Dave Schuler said at March 31, 2005 9:24 AM:

This may be the explanation I've been looking for for why I haven't been feeling too well today: it's the 62 million year extinction cycle.

Randall Parker said at March 31, 2005 9:55 AM:

James,

I'm more worried about antibiotic-resistant staph than I am about car accidents.

Digital Djigit,

I've read critiques of the extinction rate estimates that argue these estimates are based on a lot more modelling and a lot less empirical data collection than you might suppose to be the case.

But there is the more important point: Whatever causes the 62 million year cycle could kill us. I do not expect the loss of various species in the tropical rain forests to result in us dying.

Dave Schuler,

So you are one of the statistical outliers to first feel the effects. Do you feel like your symptoms are from a volcanic eruption or an asteroid swarm or perhaps from something else? Any guesses you might be able to make about your condition at this point potentially could save billions of lives.

Tom said at March 31, 2005 5:12 PM:

"We are talking something like a fourth of all species dead in less than a century."

B.S.

Your link (which I put very little stock in) says 1/4 of mammals "threatened". Saying that each of 1/4 of all mammalian species is "threatened" is nowhere near saying that 1/4 of mammals will die off, especially since the very fact that they're threatened creates feedback that serves to protect them.

"How about destroying 2/3 of our environment within that timescale?"

More B.S.

A group of scientists "warns that the almost two-thirds of the natural machinery that supports life on Earth is being degraded by human pressure"

Degrading something does not imply that it will be destroyed.

Robert Bradbury said at April 1, 2005 7:32 AM:

If it doesn't happen within the next 20-40 years
it doesn't matter. Nanotechnology development
will by then provide us with sufficient technology
to disassemble asteroids, planets, etc. We can
set up all the species we want to preserve in
some nice orbiting O'Neill style habitats and
then disassemble the Earth. That eliminates the
volcano problem completely. The galactic hazard
problem is of more concern but given our observational
capabilities we will be able to see any hazards
long before they arrive.

The problem with discussing galactic risks is
that most people don't understand that we will
be able to trump most of them in the not so
distant future (of course running into a black
hole might be a difficult problem so we might
need to be able to perform course corrections
for the solar system...).

Randall Parker said at April 1, 2005 9:21 AM:

Robert Bradbury,

I prefer the layers of protection provided by the Van Allen belts and atmosphere. Being in some container up in space far more vulnerable does not appeal to me.

Spaceflight or Extinction said at April 5, 2005 1:03 AM:

Earth by itself = good
Earth + colonies = much, much better

Stephen Hawking and Carl Sagan agree!

DigitalDjigit said at April 6, 2005 7:14 AM:

Tom:

Ok, I made that 1/4 up because I didn't feel like looking up the correct number. But are you going to dispute the extinction of the Tasmanian tiger, the manatee etc. For each one of those there are hundreds of others who weren't as noticeable. Mammals aren't the only species on earth. Most of preservation efforts are aimed at mammals and I wonder what the success rate is there. Not very high I would think since there's not much you can do if their habitat is destroyed. Go on, name any species which was threatened or endangered and is now back to a significant fraction of its numbers before the decline began.

Degraded is destroyed for all practical purposes. If a forest is turned into a desert than that geographical place is still there, you can't really get rid of it, but instead of supporting many different species, producing oxygen and organic mass and all the other functions that a forest performs you get much less of that. If I take out the RAM from your computer it wouldn't be destroyed but you wouldn't be able to use it either.

Louis said at January 10, 2006 12:16 PM:

Never thought about a pole shift started by a big short circuit coming from a massive burst of sunrays?
Is it so impossible that the inner rotation of the earth can change and that the magnetic field can flip?
I heard a lot of very old stories about it....

Thomas Weikle said at July 28, 2008 6:56 PM:

Maybe there's a link between one species proliferating over the whole planet and everything then suddenly being taxed into extinction. CO2 was pretty plentiful before the trees went and sucked it all up...crappin' out oxygen everywhere...

Maybe there's a link between our solar system being exposed to more high energy rays because it pivots in and out of the galactic belt, and everything then suddenly dying off. I'm sure the cock-roaches would have something to say about this.

Either way, we got a little bit of time right? And computers get faster every year. Our technologies get better and better, right? We've almost got it. We're almost there. Like a baby coming out the womb of earth, we've almost made it to the heavenly kingdom.

As long as nothing goes seriously wrong for the next 25 years, the human race should be able to develop the technology needed to survive, and move on into space forever and ever, amen...

It is a bit interesting though, the cycle says we're already out of time. The Mayan calender says we're out of time too... There might be a connection, you never know.

The only real question then is, "who's going to leave and live on forever and ever in heaven, and who is going die???"

I like how this whole thing metaphorically resembles a person getting up for work. They either make it in on time, or they're fired!!! Humanity either gets out of the earth bed, or dies horribly in it's own ignorance...

The religious irony of this topic is palpable, but it is also prophetically quaint and curious all at the same time. Sure hope I get picked to go to heaven!!!

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