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The Sixth Extinction

628x471There have been five mass extinction events in Earth’s history. In the worst one, 250 million years ago, 96 percent of marine species and 70 percent of land species died off. It took millions of years to recover.

Nowadays, many scientists are predicting that we’re on track for a sixth mass extinction. The world’s species already seem to be vanishing at an unnaturally rapid rate. And humans are altering the Earth’s landscape in far-reaching ways: We’ve hunted animals like the great auk to extinction. We’ve cleared away broad swaths of rain forest. We’ve transported species from their natural habitats to new continents. We’ve pumped billions of tons of carbon-dioxide into the atmosphere and oceans, transforming the climate.

Those changes could push many species to the brink. A 2007 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggested that 20 to 30 percent of plant and animal species faced an increased risk of extinction this century if the planet keeps warming rapidly (though scientists are still debating these estimates, with some lower, some far higher).

So what happens if the extinction rate does speed up? That’s one of the questions that New Yorker science writer Elizabeth Kolbert explores in her new book, The Sixth Extinction, an in-depth look at the science of extinction and the ways we’re altering life on the planet. We spoke by phone this week about the topic.

Click here to read more from this February 11, 2014 Washington Post interview by Brad Plumer.

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