Are we now entering a mass extinction event? What can mass extinctions in Earth's history tell us about the Anthropocene? What do mass extinction events look like and how does life on Earth recover from them? The fossil record reveals periods when biodiversity exploded, and short intervals when much of life was wiped out in mass extinction events. In comparison with these ancient events, today's biotic crisis hasn't (yet) reached the level of extinction to be called a mass extinction. But we are certainly in crisis, and current parallels with ancient mass extinction events are profound and deeply worrying. Humanity's actions are applying the same sorts of pressures – on similar scales – that in the past pushed the Earth system out of equilibrium and triggered mass extinction events. Analysis of the fossil record suggests that we still have some time to avert this disaster: but we must act now.
1. The Anthropocene and the Earth system
2. A short detour: the fossil record and the geological time scale
3. The origin of animals and the emergence of the Earth system
4. Documenting ancient biodiversity
5. Mass extinctions – the basics
6. Causes of the End-Permian and End-Cretaceous extinction events
7. Time heals all – recovering from a mass extinction
8. The late Quaternary megafaunal extinctions
9. Surviving the Anthropocene
Michael Hannah is Associate Professor in the School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. He completed his PhD at Adelaide University, specializing in palaeontology and biostratigraphy (the art of dating rocks using fossils). After a brief stint in industry, he took up a position at Victoria University, where he became involved in two major Antarctic drilling projects, helping to decipher ancient changes in climate and the history of the Antarctic ice sheets. Throughout his career he has been fascinated by the story of the evolution of early life and the terrifying consequences of the mass extinctions that are recorded in the fossil record.