Science

Researchers detail threat posed to oceans by humans

For thousands of years, since the invention of the first spears and plows, humans have been driving animal species toward extinction. But it wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution that humans gained the technology to cause environmental havoc on a grand scale.

Most of the damage has been confined to dry land; by comparison, ocean species have been surprisingly well protected. But in an analysis published Thursday, a team of scientists warns that the wave of extinctions caused by humans may soon sweep across the seas.

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“We may be sitting on a precipice of a major extinction event,” said Douglas J. McCauley, an ecologist at the University of California Santa Barbara, and a coauthor of the new study, which was published in the journal Science.

But this damage can be averted, the scientists also conclude. Compared with the continents, the oceans are mostly intact, and wild enough to bounce back to ecological health with the help of effective programs limiting their exploitation, McCauley said.

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While some ocean species are overharvested, even greater damage results from large-scale habitat loss, which is likely to accelerate as technology advances, the scientists reported.

Coral reefs have declined by 40 percent worldwide, partly as a result of climate-change-driven warming. At the same time, carbon emissions are altering the chemistry of seawater, making it more acidic.

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