This rendering shows the proposed Mass Extinction Monitoring Observatory, a memorial to those we’ve lost. It’s being built on the Isle of Portland in southern England. ©Adjaye Associates

We’re currently living in the midst of what scientists call the sixth mass extinction, the sixth wave of extinctions in the past half-billion years. But the one we’re experiencing today is different: while past mass extinctions were caused by events such as asteroid strikes, natural climate shifts or volcanic eruptions, the present one is almost entirely our fault. In fact, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, 99 percent of currently threatened species are at risk because of human activities, which have resulted in habitat loss, introduction of exotic species and rapid climate change.

As a natural phenomenon, extinction occurs at a rate of about one to five species per year. But scientists estimate we’re now losing plants and animals at 1,000 to 10,000 times that rate, with dozens disappearing every day. It’s hoped that a new structure, the Mass Extinction Monitoring Observatory (MEMO), being built on the Isle of Portland in southern England, will raise awareness and focus our attention on the loss of biodiversity we’re causing.

The Portland screw (Aptyxiella portlandica), a snail that was once abundant on the island, inspired British architect David Adjaye’s design of the 98-foot-high, spiral-shaped observatory. Appropriately, the building materials will include local limestone, called Portland stone, largely comprised of the bodies of ancient creatures and filled with large, ammonite fossils.

It’s hoped that MEMO will draw 300,000 visitors annually. ©Adjaye Associates

Species carved in stone

The chosen site for MEMO and the use of the local stone is significant. The area is part of the Jurassic Coast, a UNESCO World Heritage site that contains parcels of coastline and land that are also designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest. The native Portland stone can be found in a vast array of projects, from ancient Roman buildings to the facade of the United Nations headquarters in New York. Perhaps most notable is that in 1666, when architect Christopher Wren utilized it in rebuilding after the Great Fire of London, his collaborator Robert Hooke studied the fossils within the stone, leading him to the discovery that extinction happens.

MEMO, slated to open in 2019, will house an information and exhibition center. Sculptors from around the world will carve images into the stone of every known species (based on the International Union for Conservation of Nature [IUCN] Red List) that has vanished from the planet since the disappearance of the dodo in the 17th century. Adjaye designed the memorial as a gift to the MEMO charitable organization, which is collaborating with the E. O. Wilson—famous for his Half Earth concept—Biodiversity Foundation in the U.S.

Contraindicated construction

In a video, Tim Smit, cofounder and CEO of The Eden Project in Cornwall, says: “[The MEMO] building, to me, is important simply [because] it is an acknowledgement that we realize our responsibilities. So, if we can build something that makes us pause to reflect, that makes us smile and celebrate, but also occasionally have a little bit of melancholy as we reflect on our need to actually act, it will be a great building, a cathedral.”

MEMO’s walls will feature images of every known extinct species, such as the Tasmanian tiger, shown here. © E.J. Keller, Smithsonian Institution Archives

The observatory’s trustees are raising monies from a mix of charitable, corporate, private and public funders. They expect that the memorial will draw 300,000 visitors a year, inspiring them to become active stewards of the planet and motivating them to help prevent the loss of future species.

Some, however, think the $46 million price tag for the structure could be spent in better ways. They point out that other nonprofits have created successful awareness campaigns at a fraction of that cost. Instead, they say, the building’s patrons could have donated their money to organizations that work to curb overfishing and poaching, take other anti-extinction measures or support political campaigns that promote environmental protections.

Ever-higher heights

An unusual feature of the MEMO tower is that as more species die out, the structure will continue to grow. It will keep extending upward, as images of newly gone-forever animals are added. It seems the artisans will be busy for quite some time: according to the IUCN, out of 76,199 species that it has assessed so far, 22,413 are in danger of extinction.

MEMO will be a beacon for biodiversity, a stone structure spiraling out of ancient cliffs. ©Adjaye Associates

We humans are fond of building monuments and memorials to our losses. The World War II or Viet Nam Memorials come to mind. It would be nice to think that MEMO, like them, could be built and completed. If it truly inspired us and fueled our resolve to stem the tide of destruction we are causing to “the others,” the price might be worth it.

But I fear there will continue to be new names to carve into the stone for many decades to come. I fear that the structure will rise so high into the sky that it will be in danger of toppling over.

I fear, in Tim Smit’s words, that we will fail to “realize our responsibilities.” Do you, too?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,