Biokalypse Now

3 Dec 2018

Michael Schrödl paints a frightening picture in his books: nature is dying and man is inactive in the face of doom. The LMU biologist calls for a rapid rethink. The "biocalypse" can still be averted.

© privat

You can't tell by the way Professor Schrödl sits in front of you and talks, the corners of his mouth always slightly turned up, but he's pissed. Pissed off and frustrated. He talks about climate change and the associated extinction of species. The latter in particular stirs him up. The office chair can hardly hold him, because Schrödl leans far forward when he speaks. As if he were ready to jump up at any moment and take the problem in hand.

It's not that easy, though. It's not just heavy industry and its fossil fuels that are tilting the climate and the professor's mood. "We're stuck in a vicious circle," Schrödl tells us. Right now, parts of the Amazon rainforest are burning. Boreal coniferous forests are drying out and becoming tinder. Permafrost soils are thawing and releasing tons of stored methane. And native fauna is dying everywhere. "All of these phenomena have been facilitated by climate change and will continue to exacerbate it."

In his research, Michael Schrödl deals with taxonomy, the description of species and their relationships. Pictures and family trees of snails, mussels and other mollusks hang everywhere in his office. "Walking in the footsteps of Charles Darwin" is how he himself describes his field. But increasingly it seems like Sisyphus work. It may well be that some of the illustrations are now death pictures. Animal species are dying out faster than they can be described due to habitat loss, environmental pollution and climate change.

A matter of survival

But what does it mean in concrete terms when more and more species disappear? Won't evolution somehow compensate for that? Schrödl laughs, but it is a bitter laugh: "It will be our turn at some point. It's a great pity at first if we wipe out three billion years of evolution, but at the same time, our entire ecosystem depends on a multitude of interactions of organisms."

There are still redundancies in the animal kingdom: If a species that binds CO2 in the ocean, builds biomass on the forest floor or recycles nutrients dies out, there are other species that perform the same activity. If the extinction continues, however, the ecosystem becomes unstable and collapses.

Only white skeletons instead of thriving life: In a dead coral reef, marine life finds neither shelter nor food.

© IMAGO / OceanPhoto

Such "impoverished" systems are generally less efficient - both in terms of economic functions, such as the production of wood, and in terms of their natural functions, such as the binding of greenhouse gases. By 2050, Schrödl speaks of a "biocalypse" in his book Our Nature Is Dying. By then, he says, there will be no more large coral reefs. The oceans would be littered, food webs in the plankton would collapse, and world fisheries would collapse with them. The researcher is certain: "This will lead to hunger and flight. Huge coastal areas will become uninhabitable. We have to prepare for a crisis like we have never experienced before."

Fires, climate change and species loss would also kill off vast areas of rainforest. With impacts that extend far beyond its borders. "Tropical forests in the Amazon function as a water pump for the entire continent," Schrödl explains. When water evaporates, it cools the ground and releases that energy back as clouds. This creates a suction that draws in moist air from the Atlantic, resulting in rain. "So if there are fewer trees, there is less rain, and thus fewer trees again - lush rainforests wither," Schrödl said. Entire nations would suffer from droughts. Not to mention CO2 and methane that can no longer be bound.

Lost potential

And how many species ultimately perish with the burning of the rainforest? How many disappear forever into the depths of warming and over-acidifying oceans? Estimates range from hundreds to hundreds of thousands. Personally, Schrödl speaks of up to 60,000 species becoming extinct each year. The biologist considers this figure to be a conservative estimate. The number of unreported cases could well be higher.

For him, the current situation is comparable to the last major extinction event: "When the dinosaurs died out, except for the birds, around 70 percent of the species were wiped out. We're well on our way there."

The only thing we actually know about the current die-off, however, is that we don't know anything. We don't know how many species are disappearing every day and we don't know which ones," Schrödl furthermore laments. In his eyes, humanity is losing not only a functioning ecosystem but also a lot of potential. Only ten to twenty percent of the world's species have probably been described so far. With the unknown animals also die the possibilities to learn from them and to study them.

With the steady clearing of the rainforest, one of the largest ecosystems in the world is being lost.

© IMAGO / imagebroker

A way back?

Michael Schrödl can only maintain his humor in the face of such facts because of his optimism. "So far, we have done little to save our environment. This is an opportunity in that we still have a lot of potential for action." The biologist sees a turnaround mainly in the renaturation of global soils and forests: "Renewable energies are important, save fossil fuels anyway, but without ecologically sound agriculture - and worldwide - and huge nature reserves, that won't be enough in the long run. Life is fragile and dying faster than seas can rise. We need real climate protection, and that protects nature, the climate and people. Above all, we should recognize that time is of the essence."

He also sees his own work and that of his colleagues as contributing to environmental protection and species conservation. "By describing new species, we give a face to the life we threaten," Schrödl explains. In this way, he hopes that there will be a change in society's thinking and that nature conservation will move more into the collective consciousness. That's why Schrödl recently founded the initiative "Explore and Save Biodiversity," through which he hopes to finance the work of additional taxonomists through donations.

At the end of his talk, Schrödl leans back in his chair. It seems exhausting to talk about all that is going wrong. But he also doesn't want to give in to despair, because in his eyes that leads to inaction. Instead, he wants to educate: "I wrote my books about species extinction to wake people up. Hardly anyone wants to listen to me all the time, because it's too depressing," he says and smiles. "At least you can put a book down sometimes."

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