Despite the climate-change-denying tendencies of one of its major donors, the newly-reopened Hall of Fossils at the Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., welcomes every fossil fanatic to consider a question found throughout its 31,000-square-foot gallery: “How Are We Changing The Planet?”
Disclaimer: This isn’t your traditional dinosaur display. I was lucky enough to visit Fossil Hall last week, and was struck by how different this exhibit is from those normally found in natural history museums. Its central theme: Climate change is happening, whether we like it or not. Museum director Kirk Johnson called this tradition-breaking theme a “dead obvious” choice to make. In fact, the exhibit shows us that the climate has always been changing, and that the planet has adapted, usually by affecting ancient organisms on a deadly scale. I’m talking mass extinction — one of the main focal points of Fossil Hall, and something we humans could be instigating in the next century.
Will History Repeat Itself?
The Hall makes it abundantly clear that humans are the primary force pushing species into extinction. The walkway into the Warner Age of Humans Gallery displays one of many sprawling timelines with black pillars denoting mass extinctions of the past. As a visitor approaches the present, a question mark greets them, asking, “Will our actions turn this biodiversity crisis into another mass extinction?” Rising global temperatures are pushing the limits of safety for life on Earth. Our oceans are unhealthy, and their warming surface temperatures are spurring more dangerous tropical storms. Up to 1 million species are now categorized as being threatened with extinction. Terrifying, right? Fossil Hall pointedly informs us that it gets worse. Phrases like “accelerating rate of extinction,” “like never before,” and “rapid, unprecedented change” are commonplace around the exhibit.
Not all mass extinctions occur for the same reasons. Causes have included volcanic eruptions, falling sea levels, and dinosaur-killing asteroid impacts. The deadliest mass extinction, the Permian-Triassic, killed almost 90% of all the species on Earth. The cause of that extinction event, 252 million years ago, was volcanic eruptions — which choked the atmosphere with carbon dioxide, warming the planet and acidifying the oceans. Over the next 60,000 years, almost all life on Earth disappeared. Save for the volcanoes, the circumstances of the Permian Extinction seem hauntingly familiar — the Gallery even has an ice core section devoted to explaining the correlation between increased levels of CO2 in the atmosphere and increased global temperatures. We’re presently reaching levels of atmospheric CO2 not seen for millennia.
The Gallery provides plenty more frightening statistics to ponder as you walk around. On one wall, a “Human Footprint” section tells visitors that humans have altered 75% of Earth’s land, mainly from trying to sustain our population. Another wall lists the continents and their respective percentages of large animals that went extinct after human arrival. (The largest is 97%, in Australasia.) In a glass display case sits recreations of animals like sea turtles and giant moas that are going or have gone extinct because of human interference. It’s arguably one of the gloomiest spaces in the Gallery — a moment of obligatory empathy for the life that we are rapidly forcing out of existence.
A more hopeful space: a video wall telling five stories of how humans are adapting to the various challenges of climate change. Chicago residents are greening their city to protect against heat waves that devastate urban areas. Louisiana is looking to Amsterdam to learn how to engineer a coast that can hold off rising seas. The exhibit wants us to retain the hope that we can change and adapt, providing climate change conversation starters that are perfectly accessible to the average concerned citizen.
As a family-friendly educational tool and passionate call to action, the hall is magnificent. Hopefully, it causes the 42,000 visitors who attended opening weekend (and every single person after that) to consider how their personal footprint will affect our ever-changing home. I know that it caused me to consider mine.