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Earth's nine life-support systems: Biodiversity

24 February 2010

By Fred Pearce

Amphibians like this guy comprise just some of many species at risk from habitat loss, climate change, pollution and pesticides, introduced species, and over-collection for food and pets

(Image: Jeff Pachoud/Getty)

Boundary: Annual species extinction rate no more than 10 per million per year

Current level: At least 100 per million per year

Diagnosis: Boundary far exceeded

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Humans are driving species to extinction by ploughing up or paving over their habitats, by introducing alien species like rats and weeds, by poisoning them with pollution, by hunting them for food and, increasingly, by changing the climate. Individual species may not matter much on their own, but collectively they form ecosystems that provide a range of vital “ecosystem services”, such as recycling waste, cleaning water, absorbing carbon and maintaining the chemistry of the oceans.

Although we know that high levels of biodiversity are essential to healthy ecosystems, it is not yet clear how much can be lost before ecosystems collapse, nor which species are the key players in a given ecosystem. So Rockström’s team settled on crude extinction rates as the best “interim indicator” of the state of ecosystems. They put the current extinction rate at more than 100 extinctions per million species per year, and rising. That compares with a natural “background” extinction rate of around 0.3. Up to 30 per cent of all mammal, bird and amphibian species will be threatened with extinction this century.

This cannot go on safely. Current rates may even mirror those of the “big five” mass extinctions of the past half-billion years, including the meteorite strike that did for the dinosaurs. While the world carried on after those events, it was massively transformed. To avoid a repeat, they suggest a safe long-term annual extinction rate of no more than 10 per million species per year. By that measure, they say, “humanity has already entered deep into a danger zone… if the current extinction rate is sustained”.

Read more: From ocean to ozone: Earth’s nine life-support systems

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