Climate Change & Mass Extinction: Cyanobacteria Did It First

Climate Change & Mass Extinction: Cyanobacteria Did It First

As most of you have probably heard, we're amidst the sixth mass extinction. A mass extinction that's caused entirely by man.

It's odd to think as we go about our daily lives eating breakfast, checking our e-mails, using our gadgets, going to the supermarket, our parties, our weekend getaways that we're collectively killing off numerous life-forms inhabiting the Earth. The connection is so obscure, so abstract to us as we live out our lives so disconnected from the natural world that we barely even realize it. But we are. In the last 50 years, we've wiped out 70% of our wildlife and over half the plants.

But this isn't the first time this is happening - there have been 5 previous mass extinctions previously, caused by volcanic eruptions, meteors, heavy metals in the water, and even plants. Yes, even plants.

However, this post isn't really about the depressing mass extinction we're causing or the ones before - it's about how we're basically like cyanobacteria. He he he.

There's a much ignored but fascinating mass extinction [the zero-th mass extinction?] that took place about 2 billion years ago and oddly enough there are WAY too many similarities with the one we're causing.

So, for a bit of context, 3 billion years ago there was only 2-3% of dry land on Earth, the air barely contained any oxygen, and the oceans were all green cuz they were full of iron, and when iron rusts without oxygen - it turns green! And considering the timeframe you've probably figured - we didn't exist.

The world was populated with single-celled anaerobic organisms. Life was good, sentience was absent, no worldly struggles existed, they just floated about. Until evolved the cyanobacteria.

Some of these guys realized that they could use the water, sunlight & the CO2 in the atmosphere to photosynthesize and create their own food, releasing oxygen as a by-product. There was a tonne of CO2 at that point, and they used it efficiently and multiplied and multiplied so much [sounds familiar?] changing the atmosphere of the Earth.

Oxygen levels started rising in the water and the air (now called "The Great Oxygenation Event"). & CO2 and methane levels started dropping.

Sounds ideal now, but not for them! First things first, the water all turned red. Remember all that rusting iron in the water? Well, rusting iron + oxygen = Red. The Earth was literally covered by red water. Quite creepy, but that's not the bad part.

Over the next 200-300 million years, oxygen levels in the water and air rose dramatically. The original anaerobic organisms started dying out being poisoned by all the excess oxygen, and soon, with the decrease in CO2 and methane levels (aka greenhouse gases), the planet began plunging into the Huronian Ice Age.

This Ice Age lasted 300 million years killing off most organisms, including the cyanobacteria.

Do y'all see the literal similarities of this with what we humans doing? Exploiting the planet's natural resources thinking we're making our lives better, killing off other beings only to eventually create a world we can't live in either! The only difference is that the balance of gases is tilting precariously in the reverse direction now. Oh, and that we're supposedly smart.

But, I think it's safe to say, as "civilized" and "intelligent" as we think ourselves to be, we're really no different than the 3 billion-year-old cyanobacteria.

Back to blog