This week’s entry: Timeline Of The Far Future
What it’s about: Science and science fiction alike have been trying to predict the future for as long as the concept of the “future” has existed. Some predictions—like civilization collapsing to the point where Shakespeare would be all but forgotten by the year 2013 or the endless assurances that we’d have flying cars by now—were way off base, and some—like Jules Verne dreaming up submarines and videoconferencing or Ladies’ Home Journal predicting wi-fi in 1900—were spot-on. But very few seers look more than a century or two into the future. Not so, Wikipedia. Extrapolating scientific knowledge far into the mists of time, Wikipedia has made a timeline of scientific predictions ranging from 10,000 to a billion years into the future.
Strangest fact: Science agrees that we’re doomed; it just can’t agree on when. The Drake equation predicts “technological civilization” will most likely only last 10,000 years, but there’s a slight chance we could last as long as 100 million, so way to cover your bases there, Drake. Brandon Carter’s doomsday argument predicts we have a 95 percent chance of being extinct within 10,000 years, but J. Richard Gott’s take on the same theory says we have a 95 percent chance of being wiped out after 7.8 million years. So we’ve got a little time left.
Biggest controversy: Climate change may be real, but it’s not permanent. While the East Antarctic Ice Sheet melting would cause a disastrous sea-level rise of three to four meters, it would take 10,000 years to completely melt. And by 50,000 years in the future, we’re due for another Ice Age, regardless of how hot man-made climate change renders things. Unfortunately, climate change isn’t the only damage we’re doing to the Earth. Ocean acidification has decimated the world’s coral reefs, to the point that it will take 2 million years for the world’s reefs to fully recover. And if humanity’s destructive ways don’t change, and we precipitate a major extinction event, the Earth’s full biodiversity won’t bounce back for a good 10 million years.
Thing we were happiest to learn: You could clean up on real estate if you had tens of millions of years of advance notice. Hawaii will get an extra island in a quarter million years, when Lōʻihi, the youngest volcano in the chain, finally rises above the surface (don’t get too excited, though, as the whole island chain will be submerged within 80 million years). Within 2 million years or so, the Grand Canyon will become a wide valley surrounding the Colorado River. In 10 million years, the tectonic plate containing East Africa will split off from the rest of the continent, creating some beachfront property in Ethiopia. And by 50 million years, Africa will collide with Europe, replacing the Mediterranean Sea with a mountain range. And within 250 million years, every continent may merge into another Pangaea (and The Smiths still won’t have reunited).
Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Whatever happens to humanity in the far future, the Earth is doomed either way. In 600 million to a billion years, increased heat from the sun will cause nearly all surface water to evaporate. On this drier earth, for various reasons, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere will decrease to the point where photosynthesis will be impossible, killing all plant life. With no plants to produce oxygen, animal life will die out as well. By 1.5 billion years, a still hotter sun will mean Mars will have an Earth-like temperature, and Earth’s temperature will be unlivable even if anything is still alive. By 4 billion years, the sun will be so hot that the average temperature on Earth will be 2400 degrees, hot enough to melt rock. Another 4 billion years after that, the sun will become a red giant, and consume the Earth and the other inner planets.
Also noteworthy: Extrapolate far enough into the future, and it’s not just the Earth that’s doomed. The supposed expansion of the universe means the galaxies are moving apart from each other at a rate at which, within 100 billion years, everything but the Local Group will be too far away to see. By 450 billion years, the 47 or so Local Group galaxies will merge into one supergalaxy. But after a trillion years, there won’t be enough gas clouds to form new stars, and the supergalaxy will start to dim, beginning the Degenerate Era, in which the galaxy gets drunk before noon and starts dating a high school girl. One-hundred twenty trillion years from now, each remaining star will have exhausted its fuel, leaving only stellar remnants, like white and brown dwarfs and black holes. Eventually these will either be flung out of their respective galaxies or sucked into black holes. After an unimaginable span of time, those black holes will dissipate, and all matter in the universe will have been broken down, leading to the heat death of the universe and possibly another Big Bang. So we’ve got that to look forward to.
Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: A few long-term projects are also listed here. One of the most fun to contemplate is terraforming Mars, turning the red planet blue by adding an atmosphere and water. According to the list, doing so simply by letting plants create an oxygen-rich environment would take roughly 100,000 years. However, the terraforming page has lots of theoretical ways we could speed up the process.
Further down the wormhole: One casualty of the future is Niagara Falls, which within 50,000 years will have eroded all the way back to Lake Erie. That lake’s shores were home to the Steel Belt (eventually renamed the Rust Belt), and numerous factories dumped enough pollution into the lake that it became a catalyst for environmental law. Regulations were able to clean up Lake Erie considerably, but even at its worst, it was far from the most polluted body of water in history. A serious contender may be the Thames River in London, which became infamous in 1858 for the Great Stink. We’ll wade into that unpleasantness next week.