What Will 50,000 Years Do to the Earth?

Photo Credit: Loch Ness the Wave by Gilles Ollivier

Few students of eighth-grade geology pay attention. Rocks, volcanoes, dirt, fascinating.

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Oh no! Not the dirt people!

Well, for some of us, yeah, geology is fascinating.

After exploring Arches National Park in Utah, 13-year-old me toyed with becoming a geologist. Outside all day, in the places normal suckers can’t go, finding fossils, learning the Earth’s story firsthand. Then I found out how much math you have to take to become any sort of scientist.

A few days ago, my fascination was rekindled. A writer in one of the Facebook forums I follow started a discussion on what the Earth will look like in the future. Far in the future, over 50,000 years.

Here’s what I found.

A wildcard event will make a greater difference than progressive geology

The Earth is over 4 billion years old–that’s a lot of geologic precedents on which the future evolution of the planet can be predicted. The shifting of continents through plate tectonics and small volcanic eruptions, and the emergence of new islands due to the same, is relatively predictable and will cause little significant change in the next 50,000 years.

For example, North America is drifting away from Europe at a rate of about three inches a year. In 50,000 years (ignoring any other changes like plate collisions, supervolcanoes, etc.) the Atlantic Ocean will be wider 12,500 feet in the northern hemisphere. That’s less than 2.5 miles.

But what might an ice age do? What might an unexpected asteroid cause? It would have to be a big asteroid to alter the Earth’s magnetic field or to, say, obliterate Iceland, but still. Imagine one of these babies hitting your roof:

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Credit Space Reloaded

The four biggest asteroids in our solar system.

What will the stars look like?

The Earth rotates and wobbles on its axis, a phenomenon called precession, meaning that true North is not always the same point in the sky. Our current North Star is Polaris, in 13,000 years that star will be Vega. In 50,000 years we will be back to trusting Polaris, but what cultural and trade changes might occur among humans in the meantime?

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Credit Reddit

Precession’s 26,000 year cycle.

How will an ice age impact the geologic changes of the Earth?

Continents aren’t shaped by plate tectonics alone.

The Earth’s orbit changes shape as the millennia pass. As time goes on, the orbit will become more elliptical, altering the amount of solar energy reaching the Earth. Less solar energy means colder temperatures, cold enough for an ice age. Most ice ages last around 100,000 years, with a 10,000 year period of warmer temperatures that we are experiencing now.

“In 50,000 years, the planet will likely be a much colder place, with ice sheets approaching areas as far south as New York City.” – William Harris [1]

While plate tectonics plays a larger part in configuring where the land masses will move, an ice age will transform the appearance of those land masses.

Remember Loch Ness? That loch, along with all the other Scotland lochs and nearly every land mass, was formed by the passing of a glacier. Assuming that Loch Ness does, indeed, have a monster, researchers theorize it could be the evolved offspring of an ocean creature trapped in the loch by a blocked passage to the North Sea caused by geologic changes. But I digress.

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Photo Credit: Loch Ness the Wave by Gilles Ollivier

Loch Ness is 889 feet deep. That was a tall glacier. 

What about global warming?

The carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere will continue to increase, peaking around the year 2200. Solar energy will be trapped in greater amounts. The ocean levels will rise, covering some of the Earth’s land, and mass extinction will occur on land and in the ocean. We will have a hard discussion on the Earth about necessary migration.

Are humans going to make it?

“An ash cloud from a Yellowstone supereruption would darken the skies and blanket the entire continental U.S. in toxic dust.”

– Jacqueline Ronson, This Map Shows Earth’s Turbulent History of Supervolcano Eruptions

The geologic record shows that, on average, every 50,000 years Earth erupts with a supervolcano. These volcanoes have the capability of blanketing the Earth in toxic dust for years, creating mass extinction. A supervolcano emits 240 cubic feet of dust, Mt. St. Helens only emitted 0.7.

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Credit Jacqueline Ronson

Earth’s major volcanic eruptions. The red marks indicate supervolcanoes.

 

Humans adapt quickly and readily, but it’s hard to imagine an event that killed the dinosaurs and most everything else on the planet sparing our soft, sensitive flesh. Mutation occurs, of course, but don’t count on Homo Sapiens living through many supervolcanoes.

So, what will the Earth look like in 50,000 years?

Earth then will look similar to Earth now if you look at it from the Moon–if it’s not in a billion little pieces hurtling across the solar system, or covered in ice. Down here on the ground, though, we may not recognize it. We probably won’t be here. I wouldn’t get your hopes up that human eyes will be around to see what an Earth 50,000 years older will look like.

Earth’s geologic record provides a picture of continental drift that we may base some theories of land movement, but the severe climate changes and freak events like supervolcanoes and asteroids have a faster impact (no pun intended).

When it comes to the transformation of a planet, 50,000 years is a blink of an eye.

 

What do you think an adapted human would look like in 50,000 years? Tell me in the comments.

 

References:

[1] William Harris “What will the Earth look like in 50,000 years?” 3 November 2010.

HowStuffWorks.com. <https://science.howstuffworks.com/life/evolution/earth-50000-years.htm&gt; 11 April 2018

 

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