Climate change is linked to mass extinctions of past

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Climate change could wipe out half of all species of animals and plants, according to a study that has found a link between past climate change and some of the greatest mass extinctions in the Earth's history.

Scientists said it was the first time they had established a close association between the Earth's climate over the past 520 years and mass extinctions. Future projections for rising temperatures are likely to trigger the same sort of events, said Professor Tim Benton of the University of Leeds.

In a study published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Professor Benton and his colleagues show that four out of five mass extinctions can be linked to climate change.

"The long-term association has not been seen before, as previous studies have largely been confined to relatively short geological periods, limited geographical extents and few groups of organisms. But the evidence is striking," Professor Benton said.

The rises in temperatures expected to occur over coming centuries are within the same range seen in the past when many species became extinct, said Peter Mayhew, a population ecologist at Leeds.

"Our results provide the first clear evidence that global climate may explain substantial variation in the fossil record in a simple and consistent manner," Dr Mayhew said.

"If our results hold for current warming, the magnitude of which is comparable with the long-term fluctuations in the Earth's climate, they suggest that extinctions will increase," he added.