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We've Entered the Age of Mass Extinction: Goodbye Fish and a Whole Lot More

Paleontologist Peter Ward talks about the threats from global warming, rising population and our own plain stupidity.

Mass extinction is finally fighting its way back into the news cycle, thanks to recent scary reports on climate change from the International Programme on the State of the Ocean, the United Nations Environment Program and the July issue of Science. But University of Washington paleontologist Peter Ward has been there, done that, and he's still depressed as hell.

"I wrote a book in 1994 called The End of Evolution: A Journey in Search of Clues to the Third Mass Extinction Facing Earth that said, within in a decade or two, we'd be seeing these monumental destructions, and people laughed at it," Ward explained by phone from Seattle. "I wrote a book just last year about sea-level rise called The Flooded Earth: Our Future in a World Without Ice Caps, saying that things look pretty desperate for the next 60 to 80 years and got almost no reviews. Luckily, I'm not going to be alive to see the worst of it. But the sad thing is that it's horrible to be right, just horrible. Somebody gave me the foresight to see what's coming, and I don't like it."

Ward's work has been consistently ahead of the curve and has transformed him from a rigorous scientist with no shortage of data to a climate-change Cassandra who scares the shit out of the status quo. At least initially,  Our Flooded Earth was too hot, pardon the pun, to handle in 2010, but the National Geographic Channel has based this year's series,  Earth Under Water, on its fearsome predictions of the significant sea-level rise that global warming has already priced into the environmental picture. Ward also appeared in every episode of Animal Planet's 2009 series  Animal Armageddon, a CGI-rich program examining how different species succumbed or survived the various extinction events in Earth's extensive history.

His understandable professional and personal concerns about mass extinction continue. This summer, he's been hired by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to journey to the Philippines and the remote Pacific Ocean to study the mysterious cephalopod Nautilus, a living fossil, over 500 million years old, that just might be reaching the end of its expansive evolutionary rope.

"If you want a canary in the coal mine, how about one that has lasted 500 million years?" Ward asked. "If it's going under because of global extinction, then we really have to wake up. This is the toughest creature on the planet, so if it can go, anything can go."

After that, Ward travels to Antarctica to study rocks from the end of the dinosaur age, a period of high atmospheric carbon dioxide similar in degrees to our own. He's working on another book called A New History of Life, hoping to entice publishers evidently afraid of the type of nonfictional dystopian futurism they can't stop churning out in the entertainment sphere, where invented invasions, extinctions and catastrophes are exponentially multiplying. I talked with Ward about our more lethal real-time mass extinctions, methane burps, the Medea Hypothesis and more in the following interview.

Scott Thill: We've got heat domes in the Midwest and the East, and cool marine layers chilling summers in the West. In related news, up is down and down is up.

Peter Ward: Well, right now Seattle is 64 degrees. We've had the wettest, coldest summer in history. We're freezing. It's insane, but so is global warming.

ST: The International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO) put out a report claiming that ocean life is in line for a mass extinction of some sort. You've studied extinction events. What's your take?