The Earth has a future

This item was originally posted in June 2006. I have added it to my blog recycling program. Because I have new readers of The GeoChristian, I will occasionally go back and re-use some of my favorite blog entries (with some editing).

Additionally, this is being submitted to the January 2009 Accretionary Wedge Geoscience Blog Carnival, in which a number of geology bloggers are writing on the topic of speculation about future Earth history from a geological perspective. The first part of this post contains no original thinking on my part, but is a summary of an article that appeared in the online journal Geosphere.

For those of you who have gotten here who are not regular readers of The GeoChristian, welcome. I write primarily for a general audience rather than for a geological audience. One of the primary objectives of The GeoChristian is to promote geoscience literacy in the Evangelical Christian community, and so I have a number of posts on issues that are controversial within that group, including the age of the Earth and Christian attitudes toward the environment.

I close this post with a few thoughts on Christian perspectives on the future of the Earth.


The Accretionary Wedge #16: Pondering the geological future of Earth is now posted.


We usually think of the science of geology as being about the past: geologists often reconstruct events that happened thousands, millions, or even billions of years in the past. Sometimes geologists are called upon to project into the future as well. Examples of this include earthquake prediction and finding sites for long-term (>10,000 years) storage of radioactive waste. Geologist Steven Ian Dutch takes a look at the prospects for the next million years in “The Earth Has a Future”, published by the Geological Society of America in the online journal Geosphere. I’ll summarize the article and then give a little commentary on it.

The article is available online in two versions:

Dutch starts with processes active on the surface of the earth—erosion, uplift, volcanic activity, plate movement, changes due to human activities—as well as the more rare events such as eruptions of supervolcanoes and meteorite impacts. He calculates the rates at which these occur at various places on the earth, and makes predictions as to what the earth will be like in one thousand, ten thousand, one hundred thousand, and a million years from now. He acknowledges that there are many uncertainties in these speculations, but it is still a worthwhile exercise.

One of the most difficult things to predict, in Dutch’s mind, is the future impact of human activity. Will humans become extinct? Will technological civilization collapse? Will humans modify the surface of the earth beyond recognition?

Some things that will happen in the next 1000 years:

  • 5-7 magnitude 8 earthquakes along the San Andreas Fault, with total movement of about 25 m.
  • 40 eruptions of Vesuvius
  • 5-10 eruptions of Fuji
  • ~12 eruptions of Cascade Range volcanoes
  • Perhaps smaller volcanic eruptions in areas with lower-frequency eruptive histories: cinder cones in the SW United States, Puy region of France, or Eifel region of Germany
  • 200 eruptions of Mauna Loa on Hawaii, building it 5 m higher
  • Probable death of Old Faithful Geyser, as its geothermal plumbing shifts over time
  • Several world-wide large volcanic eruptions (on the scale of the 1815 eruption of Tambora in Indonesia, which caused “the year without summer” in the United States and Europe)
  • Little change visible in mountain ranges as they simultaneously uplift and erode
  • The Mississippi River and its delta will change its course. Its delta naturally changes position every 1000 years or so, and is overdue (thanks to the Army Corps of Engineers)
  • Niagara Falls will have cut back 900 m upstream from its present position
  • A good chance of a meteorite impact with a crater of 100 m or more
  • Most steel structures (Eiffel Tower, Golden Gate Bridge) will survive only with careful maintenance
  • Humans will still be using coal and natural gas, but not much petroleum

Some things that will happen in the next 10,000 years:

  • 50-70 magnitude 8 earthquakes on the San Andreas Fault, with displacement of 250 m
  • Kilauea, on Hawaii, will be about 100 m higher
  • Several hundred eruptions of Vesuvius
  • 100 eruptions of Fuji
  • 100 eruptions of Cascade Range volcanoes
  • 90 m uplift of the Baltic Sea and 100 m uplift of Hudson Bay as they continue to rebound after the removal of Pleistocene ice sheets. These bodies of water will, therefore, be smaller
  • By natural cycles, we would be nearing the end of the present interglacial, looking to the beginning of a new ice age
  • Niagara Falls will retreat upstream by 9 km
  • Higher probability of a 1 km crater formed by meteor impact, with considerable destruction up to hundreds of km away
  • Without considerable care, the only human structures that will still exist are large highway cuts and large monuments
  • No present human cities are 10,000 years old. Will any of our present cities exist 10,000 years from now?

Some things that will happen in the next 100,000 years:

  • 2.5 km slip along the San Andreas Fault. Not enough to close the Golden Gate
  • Kilauea will be 1 km higher, and Loihi (an underwater volcano SE of the island of Hawaii) will be above sea level
  • Some mountain ranges will have had 1 km of uplift. In most cases, this will be accompanied by close to 1 km of erosion, so the net result will be exposure of deeper rocks, not higher mountain ranges
  • Earth could be in an ice age
  • Niagara Falls will stop retreating as rock types are different further upstream. A new waterfall will start forming near the outlet of Lake Erie
  • There could be a meteor impact with global effect

Some things that will happen in the next 1,000,000 years:

  • The San Andreas Fault will have slipped 25 km, perhaps blocking the entrance to San Francisco Bay
  • The highest points of the island of Hawaii will be Kilauea and Loihi. Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea will be old and eroded
  • Several enormous catastrophic landslides will have occurred on the slopes of Hawaii
  • Many current volcanoes will have become extinct, being replaced by others
  • One or more eruptions of “supervolcanoes” such as Yellowstone or Long Valley, California. (The last large eruption at Yellowstone, 640,000 years ago, had a volume of 1000 km3, as compared to 0.5 km3 for Mount St. Helens 1980)
  • Some rivers will have changed their courses
  • Ten or more major periods of glaciation
  • Hundreds of meteor impacts
  • The earth’s day will be 20 seconds longer (due to tidal effects)
  • The moon will be 38 km further away
  • The solar system will have traveled 750 light years in its orbit around the center of the galaxy
  • The only present human structures to survive will be large and made of earth and stone: open-pit mines, large road cuts, mine waste piles, the Pyramids. (Even the Pyramids might not make it if the climate becomes more humid in that area).

Commentary

This kind of reasoning is increasingly important in the Earth sciences: trying to figure out what has happened in the past and what is going on at the present in order to make predictions about what is likely to happen in the future.

Some issues that come to mind as I as a Christian geologist think about the future of the Earth:

  • This paper puts our human achievements in a good perspective. All that we create is of a very temporary nature. Compared to the universe and the potential vastness of time, we are rather temporary. The purpose of this isn’t to magnify the creation, but to magnify the Creator. God is to the universe as the universe is to us. And that is an understatement.
  • In Christian understanding, God is sovereign over the events of the future. This does not rule out the type of investigation that has been done here—we can seek to understand how the earth works and then project that into the future. This is the geological principle of uniformitarianism properly applied to the future. It has its limits, but it can also be a powerful tool.
  • As a Christian, I believe that Jesus Christ, who ascended to heaven after his resurrection, will return to Earth some day. I don’t know when that will be. First century believers thought that it would occur in their lifetimes, and probably couldn’t imagine a delay of at least 2000 years. I don’t know if Christ’s return will be tomorrow, or 3000 years further down the road. I am just told to always be ready.
  • One reason that we need to use our natural resources wisely is what I just stated. We don’t know the future; we don’t know when Christ is returning. Our water, mineral, soil, and energy resources may need to last us a very long time. There are a number of other reasons, of course, for us to pursue a sustainable future.
  • The Biblical view of eternal life (yes, as a Christian I believe in life after death) is not living in heaven. The Earth has a future, at least as a new Earth (Revelation 21:1). Biblical scholars disagree as to the exact relationship between the present Earth and the New Earth; whether it is just a makeover or a complete re-creation. But eternity for the believer will not be spent strumming harps on clouds, but on a real, physical Earth that is in many ways like the one we live on. It will have rocks and trees and bodies of water. It may be different in some ways than the present Earth, but it will still be “earthy.” The primary difference will be the removal of sin and its effects, such as disease, war, famine, and death.
  • Will the new Earth have volcanoes? Earthquakes? Uplift and erosion? Plate tectonics? I don’t know for sure, but I suspect it will. We tend to think of things like volcanoes and earthquakes as “bad,” but I believe these things could fit under the phrase “it was good” from Genesis 1. Volcanoes, for example, renew the surface of the earth, and provide us with rich soils. “Good” isn’t the same as “safe;” in fact, dangerous things have a way of showing God’s glory to us.

Grace and Peace

The future ice age

Irregardless of what we do to the planet now, the long-term climate prospect for sometime a few thousand to a few tens of thousands of years in the future is cold: Earth may face freeze worse than Ice Age. This is nothing new to geologists, recognizing that Earth is presently in a short interglacial period (the Holocene Epoch), squeezed in between longer glacial deep-freezes. What may be new to many is the idea that it appears that each freeze is getting a little deeper.

If catastrophic global warming is occuring, it will hopefully go away in a few thousand years, sometime after we burn the last chunk of coal and oil shale. Then it could get really cold. Our few centuries of fossil fuel short-sightedness will just be a blip in history.

Our response: Be frugal, and don’t worry about an Ice Age. It isn’t going to happen for a while.

Grace and Peace

Futurology

I always find books and articles about the future to be fascinating. Here are some quotes from Futurologist Richard Watson’s 2050 vision: goodbye Belgium, hello brain transplants in the Telegraph.

[T]he environment will remain vitally important, but climate change won’t be the only game in town – the approach of peak oil, peak coal, peak gas, peak water, peak uranium and even peak people (a severe shortage of workers in many parts of the world) will also have an impact, and require a profound shift towards sustainability.

All of these have an Earth-science link! Sustainability is a key concept that we, as a society, are rather slow to grasp.

In Japan, the percentage of people aged over 75 is forecast to increase by 36 per cent between 2005 and 2015, meaning that taxes would have to go up by 175 per cent in a generation to maintain current levels of benefit.

What if the young people rebel against paying for us in our old age? I’ve heard it said that the generation that chose to be pro-choice in their 20s will regret it when they are the unwanted ones in their 70s.

In political and economic terms, the shift of power to the east, and the rise of countries such as China and India, will continue.

India and China are rising in science and technology as well.

It is estimated that by 2020, only 10 per cent of financial transactions will be in cash. We can safely predict that the idea of money as a physical object might well become extinct not long after – especially if a global pandemic starts us thinking about all the germs on those grubby notes. Instead, digital transactions will be made through computers, or cell phones, or even chips inserted into our forearms.

What would Hal Lindsey say? [Side note: Coins carry fewer germs than paper money]

Grace and Peace.

Maybe the Sky Isn’t Falling

From Christianity Today: Maybe the Sky Isn’t Falling: New UN study says that reports of the world’s death have been greatly exaggerated.

My previous post was about Al Gore and the Nobel Peace Prize. Some environmentalists look as global warming and a dozen other ecological crises that face us and say, “The sky is falling.” This CT article points to a United Nations study that highlights what is going right in the world:

  • The U.N. study states, “People around the world are becoming healthier, wealthier, better educated, more peaceful, more connected, and they are living longer.”
  • Much of the improvement in these areas, according to the report, is due to increased freedom, capitalism, and free trade.
  • The numbers of people living in extreme poverty continues to drop at a fast rate.
  • World population should peak around mid-century, and may even start to decline.

These are all good things.

The article, however, points us to a glaring fact of human nature. We have an incredible ability to mess things up. At the beginning of the 20th century, many were making the same sorts of optimistic predictions. Then came two world wars. We could easily repeat this folly. In our sin, and with our biotechnology and weapons of mass destruction, we have the potential of making the 21st century into one of misery and suffering.

Let us pray for our world, and work for the good of our neighbors.

Grace and Peace

The World Without Us

A new book is out: The World Without Us. This isn’t some left-wing or Islamo-fascist book about how much better the world would be without the United States. This is speculative science, and I don’t use the word “speculative” in a negative sense. The book asks the question: “What would happen to the Earth if suddenly, all people were removed?”

There is a serious side to this speculation, and that is the question of the extent of the impact of human activities on the environment. How long will toxic organic chemicals persist in groundwater? How long will it take for plastics to decompose? What will happen to the structures we build if we don’t maintain them?

This doesn’t seem to be a book of the hyper-environmentalist humans-are-a-disease genre. Some on the vocal fringes of the environmental movement view humans as a cancer that is destroying the pristine Earth, and that the planet would be better off without us. The book doesn’t seem to be advocating anything of the sort.

The July 2007 issue of Scientific American has a full-length article on this book, which includes an interview with the book’s author, Alan Weisman. Here are the first two paragraphs from the article:

It’s a common fantasy to imagine that you’re the last person left alive on earth. But what if all human beings were suddenly whisked off the planet? That premise is the starting point for The World without Us, a new book by science writer Alan Weisman, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Arizona. In this extended thought experiment, Weisman does not specify exactly what finishes off Homo sapiens; instead he simply assumes the abrupt disappearance of our species and projects the sequence of events that would most likely occur in the years, decades and centuries afterward.

According to Weisman, large parts of our physical infrastructure would begin to crumble almost immediately. Without street cleaners and road crews, our grand boulevards and superhighways would start to crack and buckle in a matter of months. Over the following decades many houses and office buildings would collapse, but some ordinary items would resist decay for an extraordinarily long time. Stainless-steel pots, for example, could last for millennia, especially if they were buried in the weed-covered mounds that used to be our kitchens. And certain common plastics might remain intact for hundreds of thousands of years; they would not break down until microbes evolved the ability to consume them.

Here’s a few items from Weisman’s timeline for Manhattan without Man:

  • 2 days — New York City subways flood.
  • 7 days — Nuclear power plants melt down or burn.
  • 5 years — Much of New York burns.
  • 100 years — The steel in skyscrapers corrodes to the point that buildings begin to topple.
  • 300 years — New York’s suspension bridges collapse.
  • 15,000 years — Last stone buildings fall.
  • 10,000,000 years — Only human relics that have survived are bronze sculptures.

Even if you don’t read the Scientific American article, it is worth going to the site for the video and timeline.

Jesus said:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:19-21 NIV)

All the great works of man will eventually turn to dust. Some of the stuff we want to last a long time doesn’t last; and some of the stuff we want to go away quickly is going to be with us for a long, long time.

Grace and Peace

Shift Happens — The world is going to change a lot in the near future

Technological changes in our society tend to be exponential rather than linear. Some examples of this include:

  • The density of transistors on integrated chips doubles every 24 months.
  • Hard drive capacity increases about 40% per year (do you remember when that 20 MB hard drive seemed huge?)
  • Computer RAM has gone from kilobytes in the 80s, to megabytes in the 90s, to gigabytes in the 00s.
  • Etc…

What does the future hold? Check out the short video Shift Happens.

How will we as Christians respond to the technological changes that await us? What is the potential for good? What is the potential for evil?

(I thank Glenn at Be Bold, Be Gentle for this link).

Grace and Peace