The Atlantic

Earth Is Not in the Midst of a Sixth Mass Extinction

“As scientists we have a responsibility to be accurate about such comparisons.”
Source: NASA / Reuters

At the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America, Smithsonian paleontologist Doug Erwin took the podium to address a ballroom full of geologists on the dynamics of mass extinctions and power grid failures—which, he claimed, unfold in the same way.

“These are images from the NOAA website of the US blackout in 2003,” he said, pulling up a nighttime satellite picture of the glowing northeastern megalopolis, megawatts afire under the cold dark of space. “This is 20 hours before the blackout. You can see Long Island and New York City.”

“And this is seven hours into the blackout,” he said, pulling up a new map, cloaked in darkness. “New York City is almost dark. The blackout extended all the way up into Toronto, all the way out to Michigan and Ohio. It covered a huge section of both Canada and the United States. And it was largely due to a software bug in a control room in Ohio.”

Erwin is one of the world’s experts on the End-Permian mass extinction, an unthinkable volcanic nightmare that nearly ended life on earth 252 million years ago. He proposed that earth’s great mass extinctions might unfold like these power grid failures: most of the losses may come, not from the initial shock—software glitches in the case of power grid failures, and asteroids and volcanoes in the case of ancient mass extinctions—but from the secondary cascade of failures that follow. These are devastating chain reactions that no one understands. Erwin thinks that

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from The Atlantic

The Atlantic4 min readPolitics
China Is Cutting Tariffs—For Everyone Else
Lobster is Maine’s top export. Like many Americans with something to sell, Maine’s trappers benefitted from positive turns in China’s economic development. The movement of tens of millions of people out of poverty and into the middle class increased
The Atlantic4 min read
Why the Anthony Davis and LeBron James Pairing Will Be Different
Two of the NBA’s best players have teamed up in the league’s glitziest and most history-rich locale, each with a legacy to burnish and an unhappy narrative to reverse.
The Atlantic5 min readPolitics
Iran Has Options and It’s Starting to Use Them
Washington’s “maximum pressure” campaign has not forced Tehran to yield—in fact, it’s done the opposite.