Paper No. 74-15
Presentation Time: 11:35 AM
TOWARDS QUANTIFYING THE MASS EXTINCTION DEBT OF THE ANTHROPOCENE
To make sense of our present biodiversity crises, the modern rate of species extinctions is commonly compared to a benchmark, or ‘background,’ rate derived from the fossil record. These estimates are critical for bounding the scale of modern diversity loss, but are yet to fully account for the fundamental structure of extinction rates through time. Namely, a substantial fraction of extinctions within the fossil record occurs within relatively short-lived extinction pulses, and not during intervals characterized by background rates of extinction. Accordingly, it is more appropriate to compare the modern event to these pulses than to the long-term average rate. Unfortunately, neither the duration of extinction pulses in the geological record nor the ultimate magnitude of the extinction pulse today is resolved, making assessments of their relative sizes difficult. In addition, the common metric used to compare current and past extinction rates does not correct for large differences in observation duration. Here, we propose a new predictive metric that may be used to ascertain the ultimate extent of the ongoing extinction threat, building on the observation that extinction magnitude in the marine fossil record is correlated to the magnitude of sedimentary turnover. Thus, we propose that the ultimate number of species destined for extinction today can be predicted by way of a quantitative appraisal of humanity's modification of ecosystems as recorded in sediments—that is, by comparing our future rock record with that of the past. The ubiquity of habitat disruption worldwide suggests that a profound mass extinction debt exists today, but one that might yet be averted by preserving and restoring ecosystems and their geological traces.