Riley Dehr: Apocalypse within the Anthropocene

Monday, January 13, 2020 - 10:49am

My adoration of tapirs began fifteen years ago after studying them for a second grade research project. They’re odd pachyderms with miniature trunks, panda-like faces and pig-like bodies that make them look like they belong more in a Dr. Seuss book than a real-life zoo. Few other animals match both the charm and uniqueness that tapirs embody. While seemingly plump and lazy animals, they are powerful swimmers that have to worry about anacondas as much as jaguars as they scour the rainforests for food. Adding to their troubles is the ever-encroaching, overbearing hand of humanity. Logging operations have specifically pushed the Malayan Tapir, also known as the “Oreo” tapir for its coat pattern, to near extinction. 

As humans continue to expand their influence over the natural world and lead us into the sixth mass extinction, a future devoid of the world’s most intriguing animals, from tapirs to orangutans to cheetahs, seems likely. Scientists are debating whether the geologic age we live in should be renamed to the Anthropocene, or “the epoch of humans,” to reflect our vast, unquestionable power as a species. 

It is an honor not even afforded to the dinosaurs, with our history becoming inextricably linked to the planet’s on July 16, 1945, after the eruption of the first atomic bomb in Alamogordo, New Mexico. Radioactive materials settled onto the world’s rocks and thus into the geologic time frame, marking the beginning of humanity as a force of nature, with our impact as grand as any geologic or biological process on the planet. This power is something no other species has achieved and will be visible in the geologic record billions of years after Earth is far behind us. 

Perhaps the largest example of mankind’s godlike influence is climate change. Growing up in Nebraska, hurricanes and rising sea levels were hardly a concern of mine. The effects of climate change seemed too far removed from me — both geologically and temporally — to care all that much about. What I didn’t comprehend was the limitless myriad of effects a warming climate will have on the heartland of America as much as the coasts. Scientists continue to discover that climate change deals with the increase of ancient plagues as much as the rise of sea levels. 

On the frigid Siberian tundra of the Yamal Peninsula, the soil can be frozen solid as deep as 1,000 feet. Within this natural freezer lies the highly preserved corpses of incredible artifacts, from cave lions to wooly mammoths. Amongst these prehistoric creatures are millions of corpses of Santa’s pal, the reindeer, also known as caribou. These impressive animals can roam in massive herds far above the Arctic Circle where few people survive. Caribou are not only adorable but dangerous, as they are natural carriers of the bacteria anthrax. 

In the early 20th century, infectious bacterial diseases decimated millions of caribou throughout Siberia, causing their corpses to be preserved in the ever-frozen tundra. A record-breaking heatwave in 2016 dethawed one of these diseased corpses and the sustained anthrax spores along with it. The hundred-year-old “zombie” disease spread throughout a local herd before finding its way into the stomachs of local Nenet Siberians, who routinely consume the caribou. 

The bacterial disease spread rapidly, killing one child and forcing the Russian government to euthanize thousands of reindeer. Scientists worry that this is a prelude for what’s to come as the Arctic continues to heat up three times faster than the rest of the world — thawing the permafrost that contains millions of corpses, both animals and people. Human cemeteries, like the mass grave for Spanish Flu victims found in Alaska, may provide even more opportunities for ancient diseases to infect animals and people once again. While century-old epidemics may be one of the most bizarre effects of climate change, unfortunately, they are hardly the most concerning. 

Now entering its ninth year, the Syrian Civil War has shocked and split the world, particularly over the refugee crisis. While this is often seen as the international effect of the war, internal migration within Syria may have also been one of the triggers that began the conflict. From 2006 to 2009, the nation experienced its worst drought in 900 years. This, combined with disastrous water management, pushed 1.5 million people to flee as crops failed in the rural regions of the country, effectively furthering social strife. Scientists concluded that climate change likely caused, or at least worsened, the drought by changing weather patterns in the region.

The Syrian Civil War may be a foreshadowing for what much of the increasingly water-scarce world may turn into in the near future. Massive cities like Cape Town have already run out of water in the past and other urban metropolises, from Melbourne to Mexico City, aren’t far behind as the Southern Hemisphere continues to heat up. More than 140 million people may be forced to leave their homes due to climate change by 2050, according to the World Bank. With a changing climate being linked to human violence for the past 12,000 years, “water wars” are likely to break out as people fight over increasingly unattainable and precious resources. 

From landing a man on the moon to creating a global society, climate change has far from outshone humanity’s successes in the Anthropocene. Even so, it’s posing an existential threat to the survival of human society — and so many other species — as we know it. As most nations fail to sufficiently respond to the warnings of climate professionals and scientists, it may be time to curb the talk of future sea level rises to the more immediate and eye-catching threats confronting humanity, ranging from ancient plagues to “water wars.” Continuing with the same old rhetoric and warnings that have failed to scare humans from changing their ways means continuing to waste the precious time needed to avoid the potentially apocalyptic future lurking on the horizon.

Riley Dehr can be reached at rdehr@umich.edu.