Extinction and the Olympic Peninsula

Following a month of travel and visiting family and friends in California and Oregon, I met up with artist-beat-writer-poet-friend Trevien Stanger in Washington for a circumnavigation of the Olympic National Park. From coastal camping to running through the rainforest, this place sings songs, and we spent a few days joining in. Photos + quotes from Elizabeth Kolbert’s highly anticipated new book I just finished, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. Haunting and illuminating. (Spoiler Alert: We’re in it and we’re causing it.)

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“What history reveals, in its ups and downs, is that life is extremely resilient but not infinitely so. There have been very long uneventful stretches and very, very occasionally ‘revolutions on the surface of the earth’…To the extent that we can identify the causes of these revolutions, they’re highly varied: glaciation in the case of the end-Ordovician extinction, global warming  and changes in the ocean chemistry at the end of the Permian, an asteroid impact in the final seconds of the Cretaceous. The current extinction has its own novel cause: not an asteroid or a massive volcanic eruption but ‘one weedy species.’ As Walter Alvarez put it to me: ‘We’re seeing right now that a mass extinction can be caused by human beings.'”

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“Ocean acidification is sometimes referred to global warming’s ‘equally evil twin…‘ No single mechanism explains all the mass extinctions in the world, and yet changes in ocean chemistry seem to be a pretty good predictor. Ocean acidification played a role in at least two of the Big Five extinctions…and quite possibly it was a major factor in the third.”

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“If 25 years ago it seemed true that all mass extinctions would ultimately be traced to the same cause, now the reverse seems to be true. As in Tolstoy, every extinction event appears to be unhappy–and fatally so–in its own way. It may, in fact, be the very freakishness of the events that renders them so deadly; all of the sudden organisms find themselves facing conditions for which they are evolutionarily, completely unprepared.

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“By burning through coal and oil deposits, humans are putting carbon back into the air that has been sequestered for tens–in most cases–hundreds of millions of years. In the process, we are running geologic history not only in reverse but at warp speed.”

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“In its magnitude, the temperature change projected for the coming century is roughly the same as the temperature swings of the ice ages…But if the magnitude of change is similar, the rate is not, and, once again, the rate is key. Warming today is taking place at least ten times faster than it did at the end of the last glaciation, and at the end of all those glaciations that preceded it.”

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“‘This is a qualitatively different set of stresses that we are putting on species,’ Silman told me. ‘In other kinds of human disturbances there were always spatial refugees. Climate affects everything.‘ Like ocean acidification, it is a global phenomenon, or, to borrow from Cuvier, a ‘revolution on the surface of the earth.'”

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“…there’s a dark synergy between (habitat) fragmentation and global warming…A species that needs to migrate to keep up with the rising temperatures, but is trapped in a forest fragment–even a very large forest fragment–is a species that isn’t likely to make it. One of the features of the Anthropocene is that the world is changing in ways that compel species to move, and another is that it’s changing in ways that create barriers–roads, clear-cuts, cities–that prevent them from doing so.”

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“What matters is that people change the world…This capacity predates modernity, though, of course, modernity is its fullest expression. Indeed this capacity is probably indistinguishable form the qualities that made us human to begin with: our restlessness, our creativity, our ability to cooperate to solve problems and complete complicated tasks.”

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“With the capacity to represent the world in signs and symbols comes the capacity to change it, which, as it happens, is also the capacity to destroy it. A tiny set of genetic variables divides us from the Neanderthals, but that has made all the difference.

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