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Letter: The world is only one mistake away from another mass extinction
09282017 NUCLEAR TEST 1946
An underwater atom bomb blast is seen in the lagoon of the Bikini Atoll Islands on July 25, 1946. - photo by Associated Press

Dinosaurs ruled the earth for 150 million years, arguably the most successful species the planet has ever known. Then about 65 million years ago, the dinosaurs suddenly disappeared. What happened?

The important word in the above is “suddenly.” At the time, the world pretty much agreed that species could change over a period of time, but that such change occurred very slowly.  

The theory was called uniformitarianism. In other words, the world could change, but single catastrophes could not cause major geologic upheavals. 

Then within a very short period of time, the earth’s dominant species was gone. All that remained were a few fossilized bones. 

Again — what happened? If you like mystery stories, I suggest Walter Alvarez’s book, “T.rex and the Crater of Doom.” Alvarez is a professor of geology and geophysics at the University of California, Berkeley, a member of the National Academy of Sciences — and a great storyteller. 

In short, the dinosaurs were wiped out when a giant meteor hit the earth near what is now the Yucatan Peninsula. What followed devastated the earth and caused a mass extinction of all the higher forms of life on the planet. 

Could it happen again?  

Absolutely, but it need not be a visitor from space. We can do it to ourselves. 

One misstep in nuclear negations, one accident with our nuclear arsenal, one act of international sabotage, and enough energy could be released to scorch a large part of the planet and release enough debris to cover the world in soot and blot out the sun.  

It wasn’t the original impact that caused mass extinction at the end of the Mesozoic era. It was the environmental havoc that followed: fire, flood and a layer of pollution that obscured the sun. This is exactly what could occur if the world launched even a part of its nuclear arsenal. 

President Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev understood this when they negotiated the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 1987 — the treaty that President Trump now wants to scrap. 

Trump thinks he can get a better deal. Maybe he can, but it is also quite likely that he will initiate another nuclear arms race. This will be a costly and dangerous piece of brinksmanship that the world can ill afford.

Joan King


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