Carl Zimmer in The New York Times:
Over the past 540 million years, life on Earth has passed through five great mass extinctions. In each of those catastrophes, an estimated 75 percent or more of all species disappeared in a few million years or less. For decades, scientists have warned that humans may be ushering in a sixth mass extinction, and recently a group of scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, tested the hypothesis. They applied new statistical methods to a new generation of fossil databases. As they reported last month in the journal Nature, the current rate of extinctions is far above normal. If endangered species continue to disappear, we will indeed experience a sixth extinction, over just the next few centuries or millennia.
The Berkeley scientists warn that their new study may actually grossly underestimate how many species could disappear. So far, humans have pushed species toward extinctions through means like hunting, overfishing and deforestation. Global warming, on the other hand, is only starting to make itself felt in the natural world. Many scientists expect that as the planet’s temperature rises, global warming could add even more devastation. “The current rate and magnitude of climate change are faster and more severe than many species have experienced in their evolutionary history,” said Anthony Barnosky, the lead author of the Nature study.