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Using mathematics, scientists predict the start of a sixth mass extinction in 2100

October 18th, 2017

There have only been 5 known mass extinction events over the past 550 million years. The unfolding of these mass events took over thousands to millions of years to unravel, each focused around the same tipping culprit: the cycling of carbon. Each of these five extinction events involved some sort of upheaval of the carbon cycling between the atmosphere and the oceans. The question many scientists and mathematicians alike are trying to answer now is this: Is the current carbon cycle experiencing a similar event that could cause the sixth mass extinction event? Scientists at MIT have now devised a metric for determining just this.

What is the carbon cycle’s “threshold of catastrophe” and how was it determined?

By analyzing the significant changes in the carbon cycle over the past 500 millions of years, scientists have been able to determine a threshold of catastrophe limit to the carbon cycle that, if breached, would cause enough instability to lead to a mass extinction. There are two different standards used to evaluate all of the data: short-term perturbations and long-term perturbations. The long-term “threshold of catastrophe” is evaluated based on changes in the global carbon cycle and whether these changes occur faster than nature’s ability to adapt. Short-term “threshold of catastrophe” is evaluated based on the size and magnitude of the change. This along will determing the likelihood of occurrence for any extinction event.

Scientists have judged that, based on short-term thresholds, an estimated 310 gigatons of carbon would have to be added for a mass extinction event to occur. Based on current rates, that would mean the global community would be vulnerable in the year 2100 at current carbon emission rates.


Rothman et al. Thresholds of catastrophe in the Earth system. Science Advances,, 2017 DOI:  http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.1700906

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