Mass extinction

January 12, 2004

AT LEAST five times in the Earth's history, near as scientists can tell, half or more of all plant and animal species were wiped out.

They don't know why exactly, but suspect celestial events, such as gamma rays that might have destroyed the Earth's protective atmosphere, exposing all living things below to intense radiation from the sun, followed by a smog-induced ice age.

Now, it looks like another mass extinction may be on the horizon - one that we apparently are bringing on ourselves. There may be no way to prevent it entirely, but steps should be taken now to ameliorate its disastrous effects.

Global warming combined with the loss of wildlife habitat could result in the loss of more than one-third of 1,103 variations of flora and fauna in the world's most ecologically sensitive areas within 50 years, according to a new international study.

Exact numbers are impossible to predict, but the trend is clear. As the planet heats up, at least partly because greenhouse gasses are destroying the protective ozone layer, wildlife moves to stay within comfort zones. With habitat shrinking because of development, competition for space increases and some species lose out.

Corrective measures are both obvious and difficult: reducing the use of fossil fuels that contribute to greenhouse gasses and preserving more wildlife habitat.

On global warming, American political leaders have failed miserably. The Bush administration is more interested in finding new sources of oil, gas and coal than in weaning the nation off its fossil habit. Congress can't bring even itself to raise fuel efficiency standards on passenger vehicles.

Luckily, private enterprise seems to be coming to the rescue. Toyota's Prius, a hybrid that runs partly on electricity and gets 55 miles to the gallon, was named 2004 North American Car of the Year at the International Auto Show in Detroit - only the latest of accolades for a vehicle so popular car dealers can't keep it in stock.

U.S. manufacturers are preparing to counter with hybrid cars, pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles, while Maryland's Mack Trucks is designing a diesel-electric hybrid engine for military use.

Protecting wildlife habitat is an even greater challenge as sprawl continues to march out from the suburbs, with developers upending restrictions on the number of houses by building larger houses.

Land conservation through easements and other devices is part of the antidote. But the study suggests greater attention be given to aligning these open spaces in corridors so wild animals can travel freely through them as they adapt to changing climate conditions. A conservation corridor is already planned for the Delmarva Peninsula, but many more will be required.

If we fail at the task of preserving our fellow species, nature will sooner or later take over the job. Another bunch of those gamma rays will come along, clean the slate and restart the process. What a pity, though, if we have to rely on that.

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