Page 28


Post-Katrina New Orleans photo by Vic Hinterlang extinctionmere centuries or, maybe, just decades. Today conditions are starting to look eerily familiar. Should rates of carbon dioxide emission continue on their escalating trend at the same pace they proceeded in the 20th century \(which would be amazing because “the twenty-first century would see a doubling of the CO 2 in the atmosphere” from concentrations that obtained in the early twentieth century. This dramatic change “has the potential to heat our planet by around 3 degrees, and perhaps as much as 6 degrees.” Five to 10 degrees . . .3 to 6 degrees . . .massive extinctions . . .you get the picture. Should an ancient mother lode of suboceanic ooze fail to motivate action, one might consider the golden toad. In 1987 an amphibian expert witnessed a gorgeous reproductive orgy of golden toads take place in a sink-sized water hole in a Costa Rican rainforest. The spectacle was enhanced both by the females, whose bright orange bodies contrasted sharply against the dark brown mud, and the fact that the golden toad \(the been discovered in 1966. Unfortunately, what appeared to be an encouraging example of vigorous species perpetu turned out, on closer observation, to be a raucous going away party. As the scientist observed, the orgywhich typically lasted for weeksended after only five days because the necessary breeding pools dried as quickly as they formed, “leaving behind desiccated eggs already covered in mold:’ Assessing the situation in his journal, the scientist concluded, “the dry weather conditions of El Nino are still affecting this part of Costa Rica.” Two years later, a lone male returned to the breeding site and, as Flannery puts it, “held a lonely vigil.” He was the last of the golden toads ever to be seen. Golden toads are now considered extinct. Naysayers of global warming have always trotted out the canard that no species has ever gone extinct as a result of global warming. If there was any good to come from the golden toad’s demise, it was the successful effort among scientists to directly link its extinction to global warming. The Costa Rican researcher’s reference to El Nitio, it turns out, was right on the mark. Since 1976, because of the accumulation of greenhouse gases, El Niflo cycles have become abnormally long, regularly extending for a length of time that typically would have freakishly happened once every thousand years. The effects of El Nil -los vary according to time, place, and other geographical conditions. In Costa Rica, however, it led to increasing streaks of mistless days, with 1987 experiencing a “critical threshold” of moisture loss. Golden toads had evolved highly permeable skin that allowed them to absorb mist as they wandered about during the daytime. These mistless days, however, left them “exquisitely vulnerable” to extinction, which is exactly what a 1999 Nature article concluded had happened in response to rapid climate change. As Flannery writes of the toad, “We had killed it with our profligate use of coal-fired electricity and our oversized cars just as surely as if we had flattened its forest with bulldozers.” This connection, moreover, opened the floodgates for amphibian experts throughout the world to link thousands of extinctions and near-extinctions to the ravages of climate change, thereby undermining the “skeptics’ sensationalized claim that the threat to wildlife was yet another case of whiny environmentalists crying wolf. One can almost hear the jeers coming from our ecologically challenged, intelli -continued on page 31 APRIL 7, 2006 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 23