The first Census of Marine Life, which after 10 years of work is approaching its conclusion, seems to amply confirm Hamlet’s thesis: There is more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in our philosophy. The census has charted an incredible diversity in the planet’s oceans, directly observing 120,000 species (including roughly 6,000 new ones) and raising the number of known marine species to nearly 250,000. And that may still leave a million or more unknown species out there. “Everywhere we looked,” said Jesse Ausubel, one of the census’ founders, “we found life”.
These numbers sound massive, as indeed they are. But if they—and the census’ stunning photos—give the impression that man’s impact on the planet has not been as destructive as we believe, it is a mistaken one. Scientists are pessimistic about what they call the Holocene extinction, or the sixth extinction—an ongoing erasure of species that can be attributed to man-made causes. The rate of this extinction is estimated to be between 1,000 and 10,000 times the “normal” or background rate.
Translating this rate into a species-per-year figure has proven difficult, because extinctions often kill off species that are unrecorded and unknown. Many scientists now accept an extinction rate of 50 species per day, a figure that was first controversially propounded in the 1980s by environmental scientist Norman Myers. (The fossil record, by comparison, shows the background rate to be two to 10 species per year.) Gloomily, biologist E.O. Wilson concluded that the earth would lose half its plant and animal species by 2100.
The Census of Marine Life thus does more than simply offer mankind a shot at redemption—a chance to save a whole new batch of species that have swum into our ken. It also gives scientists a tool to fine-tune their strategies of conservation, and to assess more precisely the effects of the Holocene extinction. It is easier to conserve species that are known to exist and to measure how well these conservation efforts are proceeding with the sort of data that will fill the Ocean Biogeographic Information System (OBIS) and another, larger, project grandly called the Encyclopaedia of Life. As with any census, the enumeration is no end in itself; it is the first step towards improving the conditions of those being enumerated.
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