Christian Long

Peter Ward: Earth’s Mass Extinctions

In TED Talks on May 4, 2010 at 10:14 pm

Reflection by CONNOR S.

Original TED page w/ speaker bio, links, comments, etc:

Peter Ward:  Earth’s Mass Extinctions


Most people think asteroids when they hear the words ‘mass extinction’, but Peter Ward offers a different explanation. While most scientists do agree that the dinosaurs were wiped out by a large asteroid, Ward believes that life itself causes mass extinctions to itself. Ward and his group have come up with what is called the Kump Hypothesis on a possible form of mass extinction.

The Kump Hypothesis proposes that high amounts of carbon dioxide with lowering amounts of oxygen have caused mass extinctions. The carbon dioxide can come from various sources, such as flood basalts, volcanoes, and even us, humankind. Ward has observed that some previous extinctions have occured with increasing carbon dioxide by measuring the levels in sediment and rock. Another thing to note about the increase in carbon dioxide is that at 1000 parts per million carbon dioxide, ice caps have never existed. As of February 2008, the world is currently at 380 parts per million. We are nearly four tenths of the way to eradicating the ice caps, and as a result, raising the sea level by approximately 240 ft. At our current rates, The ice caps should be gone by 2300 at the most. The sea level rise really isn’t the worst part of the abundance of carbon dioxide, though. One of the side affects of carbon dioxide abundance is the production of hydrogen sulfide gas.

Hydrogen sulfide is an extremely poisonous gas for animals, and especially for mammals. At only 200 parts per million exposure to hydrogen sulfide, a human will be dead. As carbon dioxide levels increase, this poisonous gas will be produced as oxygen disappears from the oceans surface, and parts of the ocean will begin to turn purple. Evidence shows that this has happened before. These purple oceans disallow complex life from existing, and it is believed that they are the reason it took so long to emerge on Earth. However, a man named Mark Roth has made a breakthrough which can use the poisonous hydrogen sulfide to save lives.

Mark Roth has found a way to use hydrogen sulfide to temporarily turn a mammal into a reptile, using exposure 80 parts per million hydrogen sulfide to keep a dying animal alive, even at extremely cold temperatures. Under this effects of this poison, an animal can go all the way to 15 degrees Celsius and still go back to its normal temperature. People will be able to survive slightly longer trips to critical care; but there is a cost.

The 80 parts per million hydrogen sulfide is not completely harmless to humans, and poses a difficult choice whether it would be worth it to you or not. Under the effects of the poison, brain tissue degenerates. People would have to decide whether they should die, or sacrifice a portion of themselves to live.

Hydrogen sulfide serves as a blessing and a curse for our planet Earth. If we are not careful, carbon dioxide levels will increase and possibly poison our oceans to an extent where they are lifeless aside from algal lifeforms and the few things that thrive on hydrogen sulfide. But, because hydrogen sulfide has been brought to attention recently, it may soon be used to save lives. Hydrogen sulfide should still be recognized as a cause of past mass extinctions, and we should treat it as such and attempt to stop it before it eradicates humankind and other species along with it.

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