NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE M ichael Moore and Jeff Gibbs have released a new movie. Entitled “Planet of the Humans,” the film examines the question of whether “green energy” can “save the planet” from global warming. Their answer is an unequivocal “no.” Instead, a more effective final solution is needed for the human problem.
Planet of the Humans has been received warmly by many on the right, and coldly by much of the left, because it forcefully attacks wind, solar, and especially biomass as false solutions to the energy needs of industrial civilization. The film is replete with images of giant solar energy projects built a few years ago with much hullabaloo at taxpayer expense now lying around as fields of junk, rusting broken wind turbines, and devastated forests. It does not hesitate to show how pitiful the energy yields and CO2 emission reductions from such projects have been. It is merciless in portraying Al Gore, Bill McKibben, the Sierra Club, and other noteworthy green energy promoters as profiteers, scamming the public while destroying the environment for personal greed. As a cinematic hit job on the green-energy movement, it is without peer.
That said, Planet of the Humans stands among the most perverse movies ever made, one that should not be touched by conservatives with a ten-foot pole. Green energy cannot sustain industrial civilization, Moore says. Therefore, he says, industrial civilization should not be sustained.
Moore and Gibbs affect concern for the forests that are being incinerated to produce electricity. Yet they express no interest whatsoever in well-proven technologies that make such destruction unnecessary. For example, a single 1000 MWe nuclear power plant produces about 100,000 terajoules (TJ) per year of thermal energy, saving about a million tons of dry wood from combustion. In 2019, the U.S. had the electricity-generation equivalent of 93 such nuclear plants, 182 natural gas-fired plants, 111 coal-fired plants, 22 oil-fired plants, and 32 hydroelectric stations. Collectively, this amounts to a savings of 440 million tons of wood per year, or about 90 times as much wood as actually is being burned.
Why COVID-19 previews a larger crash. What we must do to save ourselves.
William E. ReesToday | TheTyee.caWilliam E. Rees is professor emeritus of human ecology and ecological economics at the University of British Columbia.
As the pandemic builds, most people, led by government officials and policy wonks, perceive the threat solely in terms of human health and its impact on the national economy. Consistent with the prevailing vision, mainstream media call almost exclusively on physicians and epidemiologists, financiers and economists to assess the consequences of the viral outbreak.
Fair enough — rampant disease and looming recession are genuine immediate concerns; society has to cope with them.
That said, we must see and respond to the more important reality.
However horrific the COVID-19 pandemic may seem, it is merely one symptom of gross human ecological dysfunction. The prospect of economic implosion is directly connected. The overarching reality is that the human enterprise is in a state of overshoot.
We are using nature’s goods and life-support services faster than ecosystems can regenerate. There are simply too many people consuming too much stuff. Even at current global average levels of consumption (about a third of the Canadian average) the human population far exceeds the long-term carrying capacity of Earth. We’d need almost five Earth-like planets to support just the present world population indefinitely at Canadian average material standards. Gaian theory tells us that life continuously creates the conditions necessary for life. Yet humanity has gone rogue, rapidly destroying those conditions.
When will the media call on systems ecologists to explain what’s really going on? If they did, we might learn the following:
That the current pandemic is an inevitable consequence of human populations everywhere expanding into the habitats of other species with which we have had little previous contact (H. sapiens is the most invasive of “invasive species”).
That the pandemic results from sometimes desperately impoverished people eating bushmeat, the flesh of wild species carrying potentially dangerous pathogens.
That contagious disease is readily propagated because of densification and urbanization — think Wuhan or New York — but particularly (as we may soon see) because of the severe overcrowding of vulnerable people in the burgeoning slums and barrios of the developing world.
That the coronavirus thrives because three billion people still lack basic hand-washing facilities and more than four billion lack adequate sanitation services.
A population ecologist might even dare explain that, even when it comes to human numbers, whatever goes up must come down.
None of this is visible through our current economic lens that assumes a perpetually growing, globalized market economy.
Prevailing myth notwithstanding, nothing in nature can grow forever.
When, under especially favourable conditions any species’ population balloons, it is always deflated by one or several forms of negative feedback — disease, inadequate habitat, self-pollution, food shortages, resource scarcity, conflict over what’s left (war), etc. All of these various countervailing forces are triggered by excess population itself.
True, in simple ecosystems certain consuming species may exhibit regular cycles of uncontrolled expansion. We sometimes refer to these outbreaks as “plagues” — think swarms of locusts or rodents.
However, the plague phase of the cycle invariably ends in collapse as negative feedback once again gains the upper hand.
Bottom line? There are no exceptions to the first law of plague dynamics: the unconstrained expansion of any species’ population invariably destroys the conditions that enabled the expansion, thus triggering collapse.
Now here’s the thing. H. sapiens has recently experienced a genuine population explosion. It took all of human evolutionary history, at least 200,000 years, for our population to reach its first billion early in the 19th Century. Then, in just 200 years, (less than one thousandth as much time) we blossomed to more than seven billion at the beginning of this century.
This unprecedented outbreak is attributable to H. sapiens’ technological ingenuity, e.g., modern medicine and especially the use of fossil fuels. (The latter enabled the continuous increases in food production and provided access to all the other resources needed to expand the human enterprise.)
The problem is that Earth is a finite planet, on which the seven-fold increase in human numbers, vastly augmented by a 100-fold increase in consumption, is systematically destroying prospects for continued civilized existence. Over-harvesting is depleting non-renewable resources; land degradation, pollution, and global warming are destroying entire ecosystems; biophysical life support functions are beginning to fail.
With increasing real scarcity, growing extraction costs, and burgeoning human demand, the prices for non-renewable metal and mineral resources have been rising for 20 years (from historic lows at the turn of the century). Meanwhile, petroleum may have peaked in 2018 signalling the pending implosion of the oil industry (abetted by falling demand and prices resulting from the COVID-19 recession).
These are all signs of resurgent negative feedback. The explosion of human consumption is beginning to resemble the plague phase of what may turn out to be a one-off human population cycle. If we don’t manage a controlled contraction, chaotic collapse is inevitable.
Which brings us back to society’s restricted focus on COVID-19 and the economy.
Listen to the news, to politicians and pundits in this time of crisis. You will hear virtually no reference to climate change (remember climate change?), wildfires, biodiversity loss, ocean pollution, sea level rise, tropical deforestation, land/soil degradation, or human expansion into wildlands.
Nor is there a hint of understanding that these trends are connected to each other and to the pandemic.
Discussion in the mainstream focusses doggedly on defeating COVID-19, facilitating recovery, restoring growth and otherwise getting back to normal. After all, as Gregory Bateson has written, “That is the paradigm: Treat the symptom to make the world safe for the pathology.”
Let that sink in: “Normal” is the pathology.
But returning to “normal” guarantees a repeat performance. There will be other pandemics, potentially worse than COVID-19. (Unless, of course, some other form of negative feedback gets to us first — as noted, there is no shortage of potential candidates.)
Consider the present pandemic as yellow flagging for what nature may yet have in store. Earth will have its revenge. Unless, to avoid full-on negative feedback, we stand back and re-focus. This means consciously overriding humans’ natural myopia, thinking generations ahead and abandoning our perpetual growth narrative.
To save itself, society must adopt an eco-centric lens. This would enable us to see the human enterprise as a fully dependent subsystem of the ecosphere. We need to script a new cultural narrative consistent with this vision. We must reduce the human ecological footprint to eliminate overshoot — below is a curve that really needs flattening.
Our cultural reset cannot end there. As medical supplies and equipment run out and supply chains stretch or break, people everywhere are becoming conscious of hazards associated with today’s increasingly unsustainable entanglement of nations.
We will have much to celebrate if community self-reliance, resilience and stability are once again valued more than interdependence, efficiency and growth. Specialization, globalization and just-in-time trade in vital commodities have gone too far. COVID-19 has shown that future security may well reside more in local economic diversity. For one thing, countries under stress may begin hoarding vital commodities for domestic use. (As if on cue, on April 3, Donald Trump, president of Canada’s biggest trading partner, requested 3M to suspend exports of badly-needed respirator face masks to Canada and Latin America.) Surely we need permanent policies for the re-localization of vital economic activities through a strategic approach to import displacement.
We might also build on the better side of human nature as ironically invigorated by our collective war on COVID-19. In many places, society’s fear of disease has been leavened by a revived sense of community, solidarity, compassion, and mutual aid. Recognition that disease strikes the impoverished hardest and that the pandemic threatens to widen the income gap has renewed calls for a return to more progressive taxation and implementation of a national minimum wage.
The emergency also draws attention to the importance of the informal care economy — child rearing and elder care are often voluntary and historically subsidize our paid economy. And what about renewed public investment worldwide in girls’ education, women’s health and family planning? Certainly individual actions are not enough. We are in a collective crisis that demands collective solutions.
To those still committed to the pre-COVID-19 perpetual-growth-through-technology paradigm, economic contraction equates to unmitigated catastrophe. We can give them no hope but to accept a new reality.
Like it or not, we are at the end of growth. The pandemic will certainly induce a recession and possibly a global depression, likely reducing Gross World Product by a quarter.
There are good reasons to think that there can be no “recovery” to pre-COVID “normal” even if we were foolish enough to try. Ours has been a debt-leveraged economy. Thousands of marginal firms will be bankrupted; some will be bought up by others with deeper pockets (further concentrating wealth) but most will disappear; millions of people will be left unemployed, possibly impoverished without ongoing public support.
The oil patch is particularly hard hit. Canada’s tar sands producers who need $40 dollars a barrel to survive are being offered one tenth that, less than the price of a mug of beer. Meanwhile, oil production may have peaked and older fields upon which the world still depends are declining at a rate of six per cent per year.
This heralds a future crisis: GWP and energy consumption have historically increased in lock-step; industrial economies depend utterly on abundant cheap energy. After the current short-term demand-drop surplus dries up, it will be years (if ever) before there is adequate new supply to replicate pre-pandemic levels of global economic activity — and there are no adequate”green’”substitutes. Much of the economy will have to be rebuilt to size in ways that reflect this emergent reality.
And herein lies the great opportunity to salvage global civilization.
Clearing skies and cleaner waters should inspire hopeful ingenuity. Indeed, if we wish to thrive on a finite planet, we have little choice but to see the COVID-19 pandemic as preview and our response as dress rehearsal for the bigger play. Again, the challenge is to engineer a safe, smooth, controlled contraction of the human enterprise. Surely it is within our collective imagination to socially construct a system of globally networked but self-reliant national economies that better serve the needs of a smaller human family.
The ultimate goal of economic planning everywhere must now turn to ensuring that humanity can thrive indefinitely and more equitably within the biophysical means of nature.
Most of the time, the ground beneath our feet feels permanent. Landscapes, oceans, mountain ranges — all seem enduring compared to the human lifespan. But the Earth can change quickly and dramatically at times. The past year saw some of those moments, from wildfires that rewrote ecosystems to earthquakes that rearranged topography in an instant. Here are some of 2019’s most enduring changes on Earth.
The Amazon burns
The 2019 fire season in the Amazon basin saw mind-boggling infernos tear through the largest rainforest on the planet. According to the Brazilian Institute for Space Research (INPE), the rate of fires in Brazil and the Amazon was 80% higher in 2019 than in the year before. Smoke from the fires in Augustturned SãoPaulo day into an ashy night. The fires were set by humans in attempts to clear underbrush and make way for agriculture, but drought conditions led to many of these blazes spreading out of control.
The burn scars joined with human logging to accelerate the loss of the Amazon rainforest. According to INPE, deforestation in Brazilspiked by 278% in July 2019, a loss of 870 square miles (2,253 square kilometers) of vegetation in that month alone.
Arctic sea ice thinned
In the continuation of another sobering trend, 2019 saw Arctic sea ice continue to dwindle. Increasingly, ice-free seas are the future in the high latitudes, according to Arctic ice models. This year, this new normal asserted itself in the Bering Sea, whichbecame almost ice-free by April. In the past, sea ice hit its maximum in April and persisted until the melt started around May.
In March, relentless rains turned steep hillsides in Indonesia’s Papua region into rivers of mud and debris. More than 100 people were killed and almost as many went missing when landslides tore through villages. Flash floods drove thousands of residents from their homes, according to the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. The rain fell over steep slopes in the region’s Cyclops Mountains, many of which have been deforested for agriculture; the resulting flooding and landslides left deep scars on the slopes and contaminated reservoirs used for drinking water.
Peru rocked by earthquake
At 2:41 a.m. local time on May 26, a magnitude-8.0 earthquake struck near the small town of Yurimaguas, Peru. The death toll was limited to one, thanks to the quake’s remote location and deep origin point in the Earth’s crust. But the quake also released the energy equivalent of 6,270,000 tons of TNT, permanently altering the landscape. Banks crumbed on the Huallaga River, landslides tore through hillside vegetation and roads cracked.
A volcano rumbled to life
The Raikoke volcano, a remote mountain on the archipelago of volcanic peaks between Russia’s Kamchatka peninsula and Japan’s Hokkaido Island, had been quiet since 1924 — until this year. On June 22, Raikoke blew its top, sending a mushroom-shaped cloud of ash 43,000 feet (13 kilometers) into the atmosphere.
The remoteness of the eruption meant that it seriously affected only air travel, forcing planes to divert to avoid the ash cloud. But an employee on a cruise ship that came close to the island the day after the eruption was able to photograph the sudden change in the once-sleepy volcano. The slopes of the mountain were covered with inches of thick, light ash, and flows of ash and debris many feet thick had traveled down the volcano’s flanks, according to the Smithsonian Institution’s Global Volcanism Program. The island’s vegetation was smothered in the ash.
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Earthquake Island vanished
As quickly as it arrived in 2013, Pakistan’s “Earthquake Island” disappeared in 2019.
Earthquake Island was produced during a 7.7-magnitude earthquake that killed more than 800 people in southwestern Pakistan in September 2013. As the Arabian tectonic plate and the Eurasian plate ground together, buried mud shot toward the surface, carrying rocks and boulders with it. The resulting island protruded 65 feet (20 m) above the ocean surface, and measured 295 feet (90 m) wide and 130 feet (40 m) long.
This year, erosion wiped away all but a few sediment traces of Earthquake Island. NASA researchers say that this short life span is common for islands produced by “mud volcanoes,” the term for deep mud and rock being ejected through fissures in the crust.
Dorian devastated the Bahamas
On Sept. 1, 2019, Hurricane Dorian rolled over the Bahamas as a slow-moving Category 5 storm, subjecting the Abacos Islands and Grand Bahama Island to hours of heavy rains and winds topping out at 185 miles per hour (295 km/h). On Sept. 3, as the storm moved away, 60% of Grand Bahama Island was underwater, according to satellite imagery captured by the Finnish firm ICEYE SAR Satellite Constellation.
The hurricane devastated the human infrastructure on the islands and killed dozens of people. The storm also damaged much of the Bahama’s natural ecosystem, tearing up trees and threatening wildlife that relies on the islands’ ecology. Scientists worry that the disturbance may have killed the last Bahama nuthatches (Sitta pusilla insulari) in the world. These small birds, which are found only on Grand Bahama, were down to just a few individuals after Hurricane Matthew hit the island in 2016. It’s unconfirmed if any of the birds made it through Hurricane Dorian, but the monster storm and saltwater flooding hit the birds’ forest habitat hard, leading to fears that Dorian was the nail in the coffin for this rare and endangered species.
The Pacific got warmer
As the Atlantic reeled from Dorian, the Pacific experienced a marine heatwave of unusual significance. The event in the Pacific was a near-repeat of “The Blob,” a huge expanse of unusually warm water that persisted off the U.S. west coast from 2013 to 2016. According to the California Current Marine Heatwave Tracker, the 2019 version of the blob was nearly as large and warm as the previous event, which affected salmon and other marine life. Sea-surface temperatures in the blob were 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit (3 degrees Celsius) hotter than average.
These heat waves are, by definition, transitory events, not permanent increases in sea temperature. But scientists are increasingly worried that these heat events will become the new normal. “We learned with ‘the Blob’ and similar events worldwide that what used to be unexpected is becoming more common,” Cisco Werner, director of scientific programs at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said in a NOAA news piece released in September.
Antarctica lost a tooth
Better late than never? An iceberg that scientists expected to crack off Antarctica by 2015 finally made its move in September.
The chunk of ice 632 square miles (1,636 square kilometers) in size rifted from the icy continent on Sept. 26;.it broke off the Amery Ice Shelf in East Antarctica. That ice formation seems to calve large ‘bergs every 60 to 70 years, scientists reported.
Despite the change in Antarctica’s coastline, the iceberg was already floating, so its calving did not affect sea levels. However, ice loss in Antarctica is accelerating — scientists estimate that the continent has lost 3 trillion tons in the last 25 years, translating to 0.3 inches (8 millimeters) of sea-level rise.
The atmosphere got more carbon-rich
Perhaps the most far-reaching change to the planet in 2019 was the continued pumping of carbon into the oceans and atmosphere, which hit a record high this year.
According to a report by the Global Carbon Project, human activity — from agriculture to transportation to industry — emitted approximately 43.1 billion tons of carbon in 2019. That makes 2019 a record-setter, breaking the previous high set in 2018. Excess carbon in the atmosphere remains there for decades to centuries, so the emissions released in 2019 will reverberate far into the future. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), without a rapid reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, the atmosphere is expected to warm 5.4 F (3 C) above pre-industrial levels by 2100.
AT FIRST, IT seems like a case of extinction by climate change: More than 160 million years ago, during the Jurassic period, a fanciful menagerie crept, swam, and flew through the cool, damp forests of what is now northeastern China. Then, almost in a geologic instant, the air grew warmer and the land dried out. As the water disappeared, so too did the life. And yet, researchers have struggled to pin down a climate-related culprit behind this ecological collapse.
Now, a study published in the journal Geology suggests that it wasn’t the climate that changed, but the geographic location of the landscape. Paleomagnetic signatures in the area’s rocks indicate that sometime between 174 and 157 million years ago, the whole region shifted southward by a startling 25 degrees, plunging once lush landscapes into zones of desiccating heat.
The ancient rocky lurch was part of a phenomenon known as true polar wander, in which the topmost layers of the planet, likely all the way down to the liquid outer core, rotate significantly even as Earth continues its daily turn around its usual spin axis.
In the Jurassic, the surface and mantle made this twist around an imaginary line through the crook in Africa’s west coast known as the Bight of Benin. The change would have been massive: If a similar shift were to happen today, a flag planted in Dallas, Texas, would end up where Northern Manitoba, Canada, currently sits. On the other side of the world, the continent of Asia would soar southward.
JURASSIC CLIMATE SHIFT
More than 160 million years ago, northeastern China was home to a wide array of plants and animals known as the Yanliao Biota. A dramatic change in climate from temperate to arid conditions likely led to their demise. But what drove this shift has long been a mystery.
Earth’s monster jump
A new study of paleomagnetic data from northeastern China suggests that between
174 and 157 million years ago, the entire surface of Earth rotated a staggering 25 degrees, which would have moved the landscape inhabited by the Yanliao Biota from a cool, humid zone into a hot, dry band.
East Asia, 174–157
million years ago
How did this happen?
This colossal change can be explained by true polar wander, which occurs when a mass imbalance causes the entire surface of Earth and its mantle to rotate around the core. While true polar wander has likely occurred throughout the planet’s history, this ancient event was particularly drastic.
STRUCTURE OF EARTH
TRUE POLAR WANDER
Excess mass is
not to scale
Earth’s surface rotates with the mantle around the core.
to spin around
KATIE ARMSTRONG, NG STAFF. SOURCES: ZHIYU YI, YONGQING LIU, AND JOSEPH G. MEERT, “A TRUE POLAR WANDER TRIGGER FOR THE GREAT JURASSIC EAST ASIAN ARIDIFICATION”, GEOLOGY, 2019; XU XING, ET AL, “AN UPDATED REVIEW OF THE MIDDLE-LATE JURASSIC YANLIAO BIOTA: CHRONOLOGY, TAPHONOMY, PALEONTOLOGY AND PALEOECOLOGY”, ACTA GEOLOGICA SINICA, 2016; C.R. SCOTESE, PALEOGEOGRAPHIC LAND EXTENT
Earth has likely experienced smaller amounts of true polar wander throughout its past, and some scientists think it continues today.
“We’re experiencing true polar wander as we speak,” says Dennis Kent, a paleomagnetist at both Rutgers and Columbia University who wasn’t part of the new study team.
“It’s a reasonable area of discussion,” says Christopher Scotese, director of the PALEOMAP Project. “But it’s more controversial than people give it credit for.”
Studying Earth’s past and present geologic wanderings may not only help resolve the controversy, but also improve our understanding of the planet’s complex machinations.
“It’s so important that there’s still fundamental science being done,” says Lydian Boschman, a geologist at Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (ETH) Zürich who was not a study team member. “If we don’t understand the foundations, then there’s nothing we can do on top of that.”
While deep geologic gyrations can have drastic impacts on Earth’s surface, the planet’s magnetic field remains largely unchanged by such events, since it is generated by the churn of molten iron and nickel in our planet’s outer core, some 1,800 miles below the surface. Researchers can therefore turn to iron-rich minerals attuned to magnetic fields to untangle the planet’s past twists and turns. As sediments collect and solidify or lava cools to stone, these minerals align themselves with the global magnetic field like compass needles, recording a snapshot of a region’s location on our planet at a given period in the past.
But not all rocks are perfect stenographers. As sediments are turned to rock, compression can tweak the magnetic signature and impact their inferred planetary position. By removing this sedimentary confusion and looking only at volcanic rocks, Kent and the late Edward Irving, who worked at the Geological Survey of Canada, found the signatures of a monster jump during the Jurassic period. Their results, published in 2010, suggested that Earth’s surface shifted some 30 degrees between 160 and 145 million years ago.
Which houseplants should you buy to purify air? None of them.
Subsequent studies started to fill in the gaps in the record, and increasingly it seemed that the entire world was in on the Jurassic mega-shift, with evidence found in modern-day Africa, North America, South America, and the Middle East. But one place appeared to largely stay put: the Eastern Asian Blocks, a zone that includes most of Mongolia, China, North Korea, and South Korea.
“It hardly moved in terms of latitude during that entire period,” says study coauthor Joseph Meert, a paleomagnetist at the University of Florida. “That didn’t seem to really jive well with aridification.”
Part of the challenge was that studies documenting the region’s position with paleomagnetic analyses didn’t sample from a large enough swath of time, Meert explains. While volcanic rocks faithfully record magnetic north, this pole has a tendency to roam, so researchers must average their analyses with data covering several thousands of years to account for these wanderings. (Magnetic north just changed, and here’s how we’re trying to keep up.)
The region itself was also frequently excluded in discussions of global change because of its complex history, Kent adds. While the path of other landmasses can be traced back to the supercontinent Pangea, which broke up roughly 180 million years ago, East Asia’s route remains unclear.
“They were doing their own dance out there,” Kent says.
The monster shift
In the summer of 2015 and spring of 2018, the latest team set out in search of a more robust paleomagnetic record to untangle the geologic movements of East Asia, says lead study author Zhiyu Yi of the Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences in Beijing.
Rocks across China tell very different stories, as portrayed by their starkly different hues. The early to middle Jurassic deposits are dark and rich with coal, hinting at a humid ancient landscape chock full of plants. By contrast, the late Jurassic formations hosted rusty red deposits laid down in drier conditions. (Learn about the bizarre fossil finds that revealed Asia’s oldest known forest.)
The team sampled volcanic rocks interwoven into these contrasting formations at a total of 57 sites. In 2017, their analyses confirmed past work that showed the younger red rocks were laid down at low latitudes, where hot and dry conditions likely prevailed, Yi says. But the moment of truth came in the summer of the following year, when they analyzed the older samples and discovered that they formed at surprisingly high latitudes.
“At that moment, I knew what these data mean to us—we finally found the [true polar wander] signals,” Yi writes via email.
Meert admits that he was a little skeptical of the massive shift at the start, but the new findings have him convinced: “We were saying, Yes, yes, this is it,” he says, recalling the time he sat down to dinner with Yi in Beijing to review the data. “The sense of motion and everything just seemed to fit neatly together. So we had a beer and toasted and said, Let’s do this.”
The results suggest that the Jurassic surface rotated by at least 6.7 inches each year, which led to the slow drying of the East Asian landscape that likely killed off many of the region’s ancient plants and animals known as the Yanliao Biota. Past studies hint that another smaller wander around 130 million years ago returned East Asia to temperate climes, setting the stage for the rise of a burst of life known as the Jehol Biota. These exceptionally preserved fossils have yielded many startling finds, including the discovery of the first known feathered dinosaur that was not directly related to birds. (Read about the dinosaurs that didn’t die.)
“The beauty is that it is very simple,” says Giovanni Muttoni, a paleomagnetist at the University of Milan, Italy, who was not involved in this work but has extensively studied the big Jurassic wander. The motion and magnitude line up with past work, he notes, and they connect mysterious changes in climate with this planetary twist.
However, Scotese isn’t convinced that true polar wander occurred at all during the last 200 million years, arguing that the effects could be explained by the movement of tectonic plates. During the Jurassic period, he says, Asia and North America inched along as if they were on a seesaw that pivoted around Europe. While North America moved northwest, Asia shifted southeast.
“There’s a huge amount of noise in the paleomagnetic database, and often paleomagnetists do all sorts of contortions to try to minimize the noise or correct things that they think are errors,” he says. “I just disagree with that philosophy. I feel that’s biasing the database.”
Examples of how human societies are changing the planet abound – from building roads and houses, clearing forests for agriculture and digging train tunnels, to shrinking the ozone layer, driving species extinct, changing the climate and acidifying the oceans.
Not everyone is sure that today’s industrialized, globalized societies will be around long enough to define a new geological epoch. Perhaps we are just a flash in the pan – an event – rather than a long, enduring epoch.
Others debate the utility of picking a single thin line in Earth’s geological record to mark the start of human impacts in the geological record. Maybe the Anthropocene began at different times in different parts of the world.
For example, the first instances of agriculture emerged at different places at different times, and resulted in huge impacts on the environment, through land clearing, habitat losses, extinctions, erosion and carbon emissions, forever changing the global climate.
If there are multiple beginnings, scientists need to answer more complicated questions – like when did agriculture begin to transform landscapes in different parts of the world?
This is a tough question because archaeologists tend to focus their research on a limited number of sites and regions and to prioritize locations where agriculture is believed to have appeared earliest.
To date, it has proved nearly impossible for archaeologists to put together a global picture of land use changes throughout time.
Global answers from local experts
To tackle these questions, we pulled together a research collaboration among archaeologists, anthropologists and geographers to survey archaeological knowledge on land use across the planet.
We asked over 1,300 archaeologists from around the world to contribute their knowledge on how ancient people used the land in 146 regions spanning all continents except Antarctica from 10,000 years ago right up to 1850.
More than 250 responded, representing the largest expert archaeology crowdsourcing project ever undertaken, though some priorprojects have worked with amateur contributions.
Our work has now mapped the current state of archaeological knowledge on land use across the planet, including parts of the world that have rarely been considered in previous studies.
Even when these data are shared by archaeologists, they use many different formats from one project to another, making it difficult to combine for large-scale analysis.
Our goal from the beginning was to make it easy for anyone to check our work and reuse our data – we’ve put all our research materials online where they can be freely accessed by anyone.
Earlier and more widespread human impacts
Though our study acquired expert archaeological information from across the planet, data were more available in some regions – including Southwest Asia, Europe, northern China, Australia and North America – than in others.
This is probably because more archaeologists have worked in these regions than elsewhere, such as parts of Africa, Southeast Asia and South America.
Our archaeologists reported that nearly half (42 percent) of our regions had some form of agriculture by 6,000 years ago, highlighting the prevalence of agricultural economies across the globe.
Moreover, these results indicate that the onset of agriculture was earlier and more widespread than suggested in the most common global reconstruction of land-use history, the History Database of the Global Environment.
This is important because climate scientists often use this database of past conditions to estimate future climate change; according to our research it may be underestimating land-use-associated climate effects.
Our survey also revealed that hunting and foraging was generally replaced by pastoralism (raising animals such as cows and sheep for food and other resources) and agriculture in most places, though there were exceptions.
Global archaeological data show that human transformation of environments began at different times in different regions and accelerated with the emergence of agriculture.
Nevertheless, by 3,000 years ago, most of the planet was already transformed by hunter-gatherers, farmers and pastoralists.
To guide this planet toward a better future, we need to understand how we got here. The message from archaeology is clear. It took thousands of years for the pristine planet of long ago to become the human planet of today.
When you stack up the most promising recent exoplanet finds, as illustrated here, it becomes clear none is Earth’s true twin. But even more habitable worlds may be out there waiting to be found.
Earth is the only place in the universe where we know life exists. But with billions of other star systems out there, it might not be the best place for life. In a new study, astronomers modeled the potential for life on other watery planets and found some conditions that can create oceans maximized for habitability.
The model suggests that watery planets with dense atmospheres, continents, and long days — slowly rotating planets that is — were most conducive to life. These conditions stimulate ocean circulation, which brings nutrients from the depths to the surface where it’s available for biologic activity.
“[The research] shows us that conditions on some exoplanets with favorable ocean circulation patterns could be better suited to support life that is more abundant or more active than life on Earth,” Stephanie Olson, a University of Chicago researcher who lead the new study, said in a press release.
To date, over 4,000 exoplanets have been confirmed, and a handful of those worlds orbit at a safe enough distance from their host star to have liquid water on the surface. These habitable zone planets are at the forefront of the search for alien life and the new research, presented Friday at the Goldschmidt Conference in Barcelona, Spain, will help astronomers narrow down that search.
Previous studies looking at exoplanet habitability had largely neglected the role that oceans play in regulating global climate and heat transportation. The researchers focused in on this niche, using a computer model to compare different combinations of climates and ocean habitats that could exist on exoplanets across the galaxy. The study aimed to look for things like upwelling, a type of ocean circulation driven by wind.
A NASA astronaut captured this view from the International Space Station looking north past Cuba toward the United States.
Upwelling and ocean circulation have long played a major role in sustaining life in Earth’s oceans. And since the oceans and atmospheres are interlinked, the evolution of life in the oceans has been reflected in certain chemical changes in the atmosphere. It’s unlikely astronomers will directly see life on other planets, but seeing these so-called biosignatures in exoplanet atmospheres could be possible with the next generation of telescopes. Ultimately, this research will help scientists select the best candidates out of the growing census of exoplanets for follow up study.
“One of the things we don’t really understand particularly well in the exoplanet community is how oceans on some of these planets might be working,” said Chris Reinhard, professor at the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology, who was not involved in the new study. “Part of that is because we haven’t had the computer models or people working on them to really explore these things, so there’s a lot to learn. This is a really huge step in the right direction to figure some of those things out.”
The conditions that incubated Apollo just aren’t around anymore.
On Dec. 13, 1972, scientist-astronaut Harrison Schmitt is photographed standing next to a huge boulder during the final Apollo moon-landing mission, Apollo 17. This mosaic is made from two photos shot by fellow Apollo 17 moonwalker Eugene Cernan.
Humanity hasn’t been back to Earth’s nearest neighbor since (though many of our robotic probes have). NASA has mounted multiple crewed moon projects since Apollo, including the ambitious Constellation Program in the mid-2000s, but none of them have gone the distance.
So what was different about Apollo? It was incubated in a very particular environment, experts say — the Cold War space race with the Soviet Union.
“This was war by another means — it really was,” Roger Launius, who served as NASA’s chief historian from 1990 to 2002 and wrote the recently published book “Apollo’s Legacy” (Smithsonian Books, 2019), told Space.com. “And we have not had that since.”
Apollo 11 Moon Landing Reconstructed Using Orbiter Imagery
The Soviet Union fired the first few salvos in this proxy war. The nation launched the first-ever satellite, Sputnik 1, in October 1957 and put the first person in space, Yuri Gagarin, in April 1961. These shows of technological might worried U.S. officials, who wanted a big win of their own. And they believed putting the first boots on the moon would do the trick.
This wasn’t viewed as empty flexing. The United States wanted, among other things, to show the world that the future lay with its political and economic systems, not those of its communist rival.
“The Apollo days were not, fundamentally, about going to the moon,” John Logsdon, a professor emeritus of political science and international affairs at The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs in Washington, D.C., told Space.com. “They were about demonstrating American global leadership in a zero-sum Cold War competition with the Soviet Union.”
Watch NASA’s Artemis-1 Mission Launch to Moon in New Animation
So NASA got the resources it needed to pull off its moon shot. And those resources were immense — about $25.8 billion for Apollo from 1960 through 1973, or nearly $264 billion in today’s dollars. During the mid-1960s, NASA got about 4.5% of the federal budget — 10 times greater than its current share.
The stakes haven’t been nearly as high since the end of the Cold War, so subsequent moon projects haven’t enjoyed such sustained support. (They likely also suffered from some been-there-done-that sentiment.) For example, the Constellation Program, which took shape under President George W. Bush, was canceled in 2010 by President Barack Obama.
Obama directed NASA to instead send astronauts to a near-Earth asteroid. But President Donald Trump nixed that plan in 2017, putting the agency back on course for the moon.
Watch Apollo 11’s Moon Landing in Amazing Simulation
NASA initially targeted 2028 for the first crewed lunar landing since the Apollo days. But this past March, Vice President Mike Pence instructed NASA to get it done by 2024.
The accelerated timeline might actually make this newest moon shot more achievable, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has said, citing the “political risk” that doomed Constellation and other programs.
Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins Talk With Trump For Apollo 50th Anniversary
Political risk exists “because priorities change, budgets change, administrations change, Congresses change,” Bridenstine said May 14 in a town-hall address to NASA employees.
“So, how do we retire as much political risk as possible?” he added. “We accelerate the program. Basically, the shorter the program is, the less time it takes, the less political risk we endure. In other words, we can accomplish the end state.”
The 2024 landing is part of a program called Artemis, which aims to build up a long-term, sustainable human presence at and around the moon. The main goal is to lay the foundation for crewed trips to the ultimate human-spaceflight destination: Mars. NASA aims to put boots on the Red Planet sometime in the 2030s.
Would you ever go on vacation to the North Pole? Unless you like subzero temperatures and Nordic-ski treks, probably not. But if you lived 56 million years ago, you might answer differently. Back then, you would have enjoyed balmy temperatures and a lush green landscape (although you would have had to watch out for crocodiles). That’s because the world was in the middle of an extreme period of global warming called the Paleo-Eocene Thermal Maximum, when the Earth was so hot that even the poles reached nearly tropical temperatures.
But was the planet ever as hot as it is today, when every month the globe seems to be breaking one high-temperature record after another?
It turns out that the Earth has gone through periods of extreme warming more than once. The poles have frozen and thawed and frozen again. Now, the Earth is heating up again. Even so, today’s climate change is a different beast, and it’s clearly not just part of some larger natural cycle, Stuart Sutherland, a paleontologist at the University of British Columbia, told Live Science. [How Often Do Ice Ages Happen?]
Earth’s climate does naturally oscillate — over tens of thousands of years, its rotations around the sun slowly change, leading to variations in everything from seasons to sunlight. Partially as a result of these oscillations, Earth goes through glacial periods (better known as ice ages) and warmer interglacial periods.
But to create a massive warming event, like the Paleo-Eocene Thermal Maximum, it takes more than a change in the tilt of Earth’s axis, or the shape of its path around the sun. Extreme warming events always involve the same invisible culprit, one we’re all too familiar with today: a massive dose of carbon dioxide, or CO2.
This greenhouse gas was almost certainly responsible for the Paleo-Eocene Thermal Maximum. But how did CO2 concentrations get so high without humans around? Scientists aren’t absolutely sure, said Sébastien Castelltort, a geologist at the University of Geneva. Their best guess is that volcanoes spewed carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, trapping heat, and perhaps melting frozen pockets of methane, a greenhouse gas more potent than CO2 that had been long sequestered under the ocean. Just because extreme warming events spurred by greenhouse gases have happened before, doesn’t mean these events are harmless. Take, for instance, the Permian-Triassic extinction event, which struck a few million years before dinosaurs arose on the planet. If the word “extinction” isn’t enough of a clue, here’s a spoiler: it was an absolute disaster for Earth and everything on it.
This warming event, which occurred 252 million years ago, was so extreme that Sutherland calls it the “poster child for the runaway greenhouse effect.” This warming event, which was also caused by volcanic activity (in this case, the eruption of a volcanic region called the Siberian Traps), triggered climate chaos and widespread death.
“Imagine extreme drought, plants dying, the Saharah spreading throughout the continent,” Sutherland told Live Science.
“It was just too hot and unpleasant for creatures to live,” Sutherland said.
It’s uncertain how high greenhouse gas concentrations were during the Permian-Triassic extinction event, but they likely were far higher than they are today. Some models suggest they grew as high as 3,500 parts per million (ppm). (For perspective, today’s carbon dioxide concentrations hover a little over 400 ppm — but that’s still considered high).
But it’s the rate of change in CO2 concentrations that makes today’s situation so unprecedented. During the Permian Triassic extinction event, it took thousands of years for temperatures to rise as high as they did — according to some studies, as many as 150,000 years. During the Paleo-Eocene Thermal Maximum, considered an extremely rapid case of warming, temperatures took 10,000 to 20,000 years to reach their height.
Today’s warming has taken only 150 years.
That is the biggest difference between today’s climate change and past climatic highs. It’s also what makes the consequences of current climate change so difficult to predict, Castelltort said. The concern isn’t just “but the planet is warming.” The concern is that we don’t know how rapid is too rapid for life to adjust, he said. Based on past warming events, no experts could possibly say that the current rate of warming won’t have dramatic consequences, he said. “We just don’t know how dramatic,” he added.
All life on Earth evolved from microorganisms in the primordial slime, and billions of years later, the planet’s smallest life forms—including bacteria, plankton and viruses—are still fundamental to the biosphere. They cycle minerals and nutrients through soil, water and the atmosphere. They help grow and digest the food we eat. Without microbes, life as we know it wouldn’t exist.
Now, global warming is supercharging some microbial cycles on a scale big enough to trigger damaging climate feedback loops, research is showing. Bacteria are feasting on more organic material and produce extra carbon dioxide as the planet warms. In the Arctic, a spreading carpet of algae is soaking up more of the sun’s summer rays, speeding melting of the ice.
Deadly pathogenic microbes are also spreading poleward and upward in elevation, killing people, cattle and crops.
So many documented changes, along with other alarming microbial red flags, have drawn a warning from a group of 30 microbiologists, published Tuesday as a “consensus statement” in the journal Nature Reviews Microbiology.
The microbiologists, in their statement, warned about changes they’re already seeing and called for more research to understand the potential impact. The statement “puts humanity on notice that the impact of climate change will depend heavily on responses of microorganisms, which are essential for achieving an environmentally sustainable future,” they wrote.
“Microbes literally support all life on Earth,” said Tom Crowther, an environmental scientist with ETH Zürich, who was among the signers of the statement. “Maintaining and preserving these incredible communities has to be our highest priority if we intend to maintain the existence that we want on this planet.”
What’s known is that global warming increases microbial activity, driving global warming feedback loops, Crowther said.
His research has showed that accelerated microbial activity in soils will significantly increase carbon emissions by 2050. In another study, he showed how global warming favors fungi that quickly break down dead wood and leaves and release CO2 to the atmosphere.
A better understanding of the dynamics would not only help make better global warming projections, but that knowledge also is integral to efforts to reduce CO2 levels in the atmosphere with climate-friendly soils, forest and agriculture, said University of Vermont climate researcher Aimée Classen.
“We know microbes are important for the way the way plants grow,” she said. “Can we harness some of that to help plants be more resistant to changing climate and to sequester more carbon in the soil?”
It’s a Health Issue, Too
There are beneficial microbes, and there are pathogens that are deadly to plants and animals. Global warming is making it easier for some of those killers to spread, reproduce and persist in the environment, said MatthewBaylis, a health researcher at the University of Liverpool who joined the consensus statement.
“We’re seeing a remarkable rate of emergence with new and spreading diseases that are affecting our food production, plants and animals, and our own health,” he said.
It’s not all due to climate change. Some of the spread of disease is simply due to people moving around more and moving plants from place to place in commerce and agriculture.
But there is compelling scientific evidence that global warming has brought malaria to higher elevations in Africa even as its being eradicated in other places, and that it has enabled the spread of bluetongue, a livestock disease that affects sheep, Baylis said.
Millions more people will face the risks of these diseases as the climate warms, he said.
“As the environment warms, pathogens can proliferate in new habitats that were previously too cold, and thereby infect humans in these new habitats,” said Kenneth Timmis, an environmental microbiologist at the Technical University Braunschweig, Germany.
Warming oceans are also changing currents and extreme events like El Niño, which disperses pathogens to new habitats where they cause disease, Timmis said. “This is the case for Vibrio, the cause of cholera and related diseases, of which there has been a series of outbreaks in recent years. In general, water-borne infections increase with increasing temperature,” he said.
Microbes Changes Affect Ocean Food Chain
Charges are also being documented in the Southern Ocean around Antarctica, where marine microplankton take in some 40 percent of all the carbon sequestered by all the oceans and sink it to the seafloor, partly mitigating the buildup of greenhouse gases.
About 90 percent of the world’s ocean biomass is microbial, making it a thick, living soup at a microscopic scale, and global warming brewing up some biological storms with as-yet unknown consequences, said Antje Boetius, a marine microbiologist at the Max Planck Institute in Germany.
The widely reported extreme low Arctic sea ice extent in the summer of 2012 rippled through the ocean’s ecosystems. Huge amounts of microbial life, in the form of diatoms floating in sea ice east of Greenland drifted to the bottom. Boetius said she measured a noticeable change in ocean chemistry as the dead diatoms and associated bacteria piled up at the bottom of the ocean. The research didn’t trace a direct link to harm to marine animals, but it showed how sudden and dramatic extreme climate events can be.
“In the very deep sea, which everyone thinks is protected, we see the velocity of climate change,” she said.
The breeding and feeding cycles of many other Arctic species are closely linked to the timing and location of plankton blooms, so a disruption of the ocean microbe cycles can fundamentally affect the whole food chain, from birds to whales.
Boetius also warned of other tipping points that haven’t been studied yet, including the erosion of organic permafrost soil to the ocean, where aquatic bacteria could digest the material and release huge amounts of methane and CO2 to the air, as well as a potential increase in toxic algae blooms in the Arctic, where they are now still uncommon.
“For everyone that studies ocean microbiology,” she said, “it’s really scary.”
A very big asteroid with its own little moon is going to zip past Earth tonight (May 25) — close enough that, with some preparation and a decent telescope, amateur astronomers may spot it blotting out the stars.
This moon-and-asteroid system, called 1999 KW4, is made up of two rocks. The big one is about 0.8 miles (1.3 kilometers) wide, according to NASA, and shaped like a spinning top. The smaller one is more elongated and stretches 0.35 miles (0.57 km) along its longest dimension. It points lengthwise toward its much larger twin.
Together, the asteroid and its minimoon will pass Earth at such a strange, steep angle that NASA called them “the least accessible … for a spacecraft mission of any known binary near-Earth asteroid.”
But that doesn’t mean they aren’t interesting to look at.
The two asteroids will pass closest to Earth at 7:05 pm EDT (1105 GMT), when they’ll be just 3,219,955 miles (5,182,015 km) from the planet’s surface. That’s more than a dozen times the distance between the Earth and the moon in its orbit around our planet, and much too far for the space rocks to pose any threat. In fact, this is the fourth approach the binary asteroids have made toward Earth since they were discovered in 1999, and not the closest. This is not the first time, according to EarthSky, that astronomers plan to make radar images of these asteroids as they pass.
Back on May 25, 2001, according to NASA, the asteroids passed about 6.7% closer to Earth than they will this time, at a distance of 3,005,447 miles (4,836,798 km). Seventeen years from now, on May 25, 2036, the rocks will pass 55.2% closer to Earth, at a distance of just 1,443,511 miles (2,323,106 km) — again, posing no threat worth worrying about.
These big rocks have been frequent flyers in our planet’s neighborhood for a long time.
“1999 KW4 approaches within 0.05 AU of Earth several times each century,” NASA’s report on the object said. “This trend exists from at least [the year] 1600 [to] 2500.” [Black Marble Images: Earth at Night]
“AU” refers to “astronomical units,” a unit equal to the distance between Earth and the sun. So 0.05 AU is equal to one-twentieth the distance between Earth and sun, or about 4,650,000 miles (7,480,000 km). The two asteroids have passed even closer to Earth, without incident, several times a century since William Shakespeare was writing, and they will continue to do so until this article is at least 500 years old.
EarthSky reported that during the space rocks’ closest approach, they’ll be most visible in the Southern Hemisphere, appearing as fast-moving shadows against stars in the constellation Puppis. The two asteroids will remain visible for several days, though, according to EarthSky. North American asteroid hunters may spot the objects near the constellation Hydra on the evening of May 27.