Sunday, 13 March 2005

The Long Term View

Recently, I've been blogging about Global Warming and the last 6,000 years or so. And in the past, I've also blogged lightly on taking a Long Term View, not letting trivial matters such as Mass Extinctions distract you from the important stuff.

But even with a tool like SimEarth, it's not easy to understand what's likely to happen in the next billion years. Or even one million.

Consider the following :
The earth of two billion years ago would have been utterly unrecognizable. The planet spun almost twice as fast as it now spins. The moon was about 100,000 miles away. The tectonic plates would have been skidding around on roller skates compared to their present stately movement and on a much hotter and broiling surface of lava, and the sun would have been about 20% dimmer than we see it now ...
Yet if you live in North-East North America, you can journey to Chesapeake Bay and see Horseshoe Crabs - which are basically close cousins (though not direct descendents) of Trilobites of 500 million years ago.

Persistant little buggers, aren't they?

I can still recall when I wandered on a beach in New England, USA, waiting for my Clam Chowder and Baked Scrod to cook at the nearby restaurant, and I found a Horseshoe Crab shell. I'd seen one in the Australian Museum, but to hold it, and touch it... it gave me a new insight into ages past. Thus intellectually fortified, I returned to the restaurant, to try the exotic native cuisine of the area. Boston Clam Chowder is world-famous, but Baked Scrod? It sounded like something that had recently emerged on unsteady tentacles from primeval ooze. (BTW, to non-USAians, it's fish, and not bad. ).


Our present is just a data point, a moment suspended between a billion years past, and a billion years future. How can we comprehend viscerally rather than intellectually what a billion years really means? Let alone 2 billion. So let's try something a bit less ambitious - a mere 200 million. Less than half the distance from now as the Trilobite period was.MegaSquid
In 200 million years the world is a very different place... the pull of the moon has slowed the globe so now a day is 25 hours long... and all the continents have drifted together to form a huge global continent called Pangea II... the centre of that continent is a[n] arid dry desert that stretches for thousands of kilometres...the rest of the world is dominated by one large global ocean, whose weather is so extreme that the whole world is wracked by storms..
Thus goes the narrative from the Discovery Channel's new series "The Future is Wild", which attempts to show how the far distant future may go, with mammals relegated to the same "living fossil" status as the Horseshoe Crab today. It's complete with a menagerie of animals of 5 million, 100 million, and 200 million years hence (including the elephant-sized Megasquid in the picture to the right). Stranger creatures have evolved before now: take a look at a Giraffe. Or consider that some of the closest relatives of Elephants are ... pigs. Let us not forget those aquatic acrobats supreme, the Penguins. A Squid out of water is no stranger than a bird which lives in the stuff.

The definitive book on post-human animals is After Man, which also has some fabulous illustrations.

So where did I find this information? From a Science-oriented meta-blog called The Tangled Bank, thence to Unscrewing the Inscrutable. Lots of good stuff in the Tangled Bank, including informed speculation on when did life begin on Earth, and amusing tales of another Squid out of water. Or rather, Octopus. How did one end up in a snowdrift in Minnesota? One of Life's little mysteries, I'm afraid, lots of hypotheses but no real evidence. Truly, the Universe is an amazing place, full of surprise, wonder and Serendipity.

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