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How to Survive a Mass Extinction

        Science | Evolution

How Humans Can Survive a Mass Extinction
We're unlikely to be able to hitch a ride to another planet any time soon.
We're unlikely to be able to hitch a ride to another planet any time soon.
Dsipe/iStock/Thinkstock

When most people think about survival, they think about things like personal protection, emergency shelters and food preservation. Sure, that stuff might help in the short term, but this is a mass extinction we're talking about! You can't dehydrate enough food to last 2 million years! Instead, it's going to take some serious, long-term changes in human behavior and technology to survive something like that.

While humans have never had to survive a Big-Five-style extinction, we certainly have displayed some qualities needed to do so. Remember Lystrosaurus, which was able to spread across the globe and adapt to various climates and food sources? We did that, too — 60,000 to 130,000 years ago [sources: National Geographic, Rodgers].

Members of the Homo sapiens species departed their African homeland, eventually inhabiting almost every continent [source: National Geographic]. Guesses about what spurred this migration range from massive drought to a volcanic eruption [sources: Gugliotta, Newitz]. Regardless of what happened, this example shows that even if hardship forces us to pack up and move, we can still survive and even flourish.

Of course, our greatest advantage over all previous species is — you guessed it — technology. What if the climate begins killing our crops? Perhaps we can genetically engineer our food to be hardier. What if a large asteroid is on a collision course with Earth? Maybe we can land a spacecraft on it and push it away. Some of the most fascinating extinction-dodging research is in geoengineering, a field in which scientists study ways to control our climate with technology. Imagine floating arrays of mirrors that deflect sunlight to cool the planet, or artificial trees that pull carbon dioxide out of the air and inject it underground. As crazy as it sounds, these and other solutions are possible, and they might even work.

But what if they don't? There's only one other option, really, and that's to go live somewhere else. Not another city, country or continent, but another world entirely. Scientists have long dreamed of building structures designed to mimic Earth's conditions on other planets, and some have even suggested that we could geoengineer the whole planet to function like our own.

But before we wander too far into sci-fi movie territory, let's have a reality check. Do we really want to rely on untested technology to save us? Perhaps, as the next section suggests, we should try to prevent this sixth big mass extinction from getting even worse.