Earth experiences seasonal changes because of how its axis is tilted (23.43° relative to the Sun’s equator), causing one hemisphere to always be tilted towards the Sun (and the other away) for different parts of the year. However, because of gravitational interactions between the Earth, Sun, Moon, and other planets of the Solar System, Earth has experienced changes in its orientation (obliquity) over the course of eons. This has led to significant changes in Earth’s climate, particularly the recession and expansion of ice sheets due to significant variations in the distribution of sunlight and seasonal changes.
These warming and cooling periods are known as interglacial and glacial periods (“ice ages”). Another interesting change is how the glacial-interglacial cycle has become slower with time. While scientists have long suspected that astronomical forces are responsible, they have only recently been able to test this theory. In a recent study, a team of Japanese researchers reproduced the cycle of glacial periods during the early Pleistocene Epoch (1.6 to 1.2 million years ago) using an improved computer model that confirmed astronomical forces were responsible.
For decades, scientists have theorized that a massive impact caused the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event. This event occurred about 66 million years ago and caused the mass extinction of about 75% of all plant and animal species on Earth (including the non-avian dinosaurs). With the discovery of the massive Chicxulub crater in the Yucatan Peninsula (southern Mexico) in the 1970s, scientists concluded that they’d found the impact responsible. Based on all the available data, the Chicxulub Impact event is believed to have been as powerful as 100,000 billion metric tons (110,231 U.S tons) of TNT.
This blast was more powerful than all the nuclear devices in the world combined and sent an estimated 25 trillion metric tons (~27.5 US tons) of hot dust, ash, and steam into the atmosphere, creating a global winter. But according to new research led by the University of Michigan, an international team of geologists has determined that the impact also created a global tsunami. According to their findings, this tsunami was 30,000 times more powerful than the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, one of the largest and most devastating tsunamis on record.
About 466 million years ago, there was an asteroid collision in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. The collision caused the breakup of a major asteroid, creating a shower of dust throughout the inner Solar System. That event is called the Ordovician Meteor Event, and its dust caused an ice age here on Earth.
That ice age contributed to an enormous boost in biodiversity on ancient Earth.
It is a well-known fact among Earth scientists that our planet periodically undergoes major changes in its climate. Over the course of the past 200 million years, our planet has experienced four major geological periods (the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous and Cenozoic) and one major ice age (the Pliocene-Quaternary glaciation), all of which had a drastic impact on plant and animal life, as well as effecting the course of species evolution.
For decades, geologists have also understood that these changes are due in part to gradual shifts in the Earth’s orbit, which are caused by Venus and Jupiter, and repeat regularly every 405,000 years. But it was not until recently that a team of geologists and Earth scientists unearthed the first evidence of these changes – sediments and rock core samples that provide a geological record of how and when these changes took place.
As noted, the idea that Earth experiences periodic changes in its climate (which are related to changes in its orbit) has been understood for almost a century. These changes consist of Milankovitch Cycles, which consist of a 100,000-year cycle in the eccentricity of Earth’s orbit, a 41,000-year cycle in the tilt of Earth’s axis relative to its orbital plane, and a 21,000-year cycle caused by changes in the planet’s axis.
Combined with the 405,000-year swing, which is the result of Venus and Jupiter’s gravitational influence, these shifts cause changes in how much solar energy reaches parts of our planet, which in turn influences Earth’s climate. Based on fossil records, these cycles are also known to have had a profound impact on life on Earth, which likely had an effect on the course of species of evolution. As Prof. Bent explained in a Rutgers Today press release:
“The climate cycles are directly related to how Earth orbits the sun and slight variations in sunlight reaching Earth lead to climate and ecological changes. The Earth’s orbit changes from close to perfectly circular to about 5 percent elongated especially every 405,000 years.”
For the sake of their study, Prof. Kent and his colleagues obtained sediment samples from the Newark basin, a prehistoric lake that spanned most of New Jersey, and a core rock sample from the Chinle Formation in Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona. This core rock measured about 518 meters (1700 feet) long, 6.35 cm (2.5 inches) in diameter, and was dated to the Triassic Period – ca. 202 to 253 million years ago.
The team then linked reversals in Earth’s magnetic field – where the north and south pole shift – to sediments with and without zircons (minerals with uranium that allow for radioactive dating) as well as to climate cycles in the geological record. What these showed was that the 405,000-years cycle is the most regular astronomical pattern linked to Earth’s annual orbit around the Sun.
The results further indicated that the cycle been stable for hundreds of millions of years and is still active today. As Prof. Kent explained, this constitutes the first verifiable evidence that celestial mechanics have played a historic role in natural shifts in Earth’s climate. As Prof. Kent indicated:
“It’s an astonishing result because this long cycle, which had been predicted from planetary motions through about 50 million years ago, has been confirmed through at least 215 million years ago. Scientists can now link changes in the climate, environment, dinosaurs, mammals and fossils around the world to this 405,000-year cycle in a very precise way.”
Previously, astronomers were able to calculate this cycle reliably back to around 50 million years, but found that the problem became too complex prior to this because too many shifting motions came into play. “There are other, shorter, orbital cycles, but when you look into the past, it’s very difficult to know which one you’re dealing with at any one time, because they change over time,” said Prof. Kent. “The beauty of this one is that it stands alone. It doesn’t change. All the other ones move over it.”
In addition, scientists were unable to obtain accurate dates as to when Earth’s magnetic field reversed for 30 million years of the Late Triassic – between ca. 201.3 and 237 million years ago. This was a crucial period for the evolution of terrestrial life because it was when the Supercontinent of Pangaea broke up, and also when the dinosaurs and mammals first appeared.
This break-up led to the formation of the Atlantic Ocean as the continents drifted apart and coincided with a mass extinction event by the end of the period that effected the dinosaurs. With this new evidence, geologists, paleontologists and Earth scientists will be able to develop very precise timelines and accurately categorize fossil evidence dated to this period, which show differences and similarities over wide-ranging areas.
This research, and the ability to create accurate geological and climatological timelines that go back over 200 million years, is sure to have drastic implications. Not only will climate studies benefit from it, but also our understanding of how life, and even how our Solar System, evolved. What emerges from this could include a better understanding of how life could emerge in other star systems.
After all, if our search for extra-solar life life comes down to what we know about life on Earth, knowing more about how it evolved here will better the odds of finding it out there.
As a species, we humans tend to take it for granted that we are the only ones that live in sedentary communities, use tools, and alter our landscape to meet our needs. It is also a foregone conclusion that in the history of planet Earth, humans are the only species to develop machinery, automation, electricity, and mass communications – the hallmarks of industrial civilization.
But what if another industrial civilization existed on Earth millions of years ago? Would we be able to find evidence of it within the geological record today? By examining the impact human industrial civilization has had on Earth, a pair of researchers conducted a study that considers how such a civilization could be found and how this could have implications in the search for extra-terrestrial life.
As they indicate in their study, the search for life on other planets has often involved looking to Earth-analogues to see what kind conditions life could exist under. However, this pursuit also entails the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI) that would be capable of communicating with us. Naturally, it is assumed that any such civilization would need to develop and industrial base first.
This, in turn, raises the question of how often an industrial civilization might develop – what Schmidt and Frank refer to as the “Silurian Hypothesis”. Naturally, this raises some complications since humanity is the only example of an industrialized species that we know of. In addition, humanity has only been an industrial civilization for the past few centuries – a mere fraction of its existence as a species and a tiny fraction of the time that complex life has existed on Earth.
For the sake of their study, the team first noted the importance of this question to the Drake Equation. To recap, this theory states that the number of civilizations (N) in our galaxy that we might be able to communicate is equal to the average rate of star formation (R*), the fraction of those stars that have planets (fp), the number of planets that can support life (ne), the number of planets that will develop life ( fl), the number of planets that will develop intelligent life (fi), the number civilizations that would develop transmission technologies (fc), and the length of time these civilizations will have to transmit signals into space (L).
This can be expressed mathematically as: N = R* x fp x ne x fl x fi x fc x L
As they indicate in their study, the parameters of this equation may change thanks to the addition of the Silurian Hypothesis, as well as recent exoplanets surveys:
“If over the course of a planet’s existence, multiple industrial civilizations can arise over the span of time that life exists at all, the value of fc may in fact be greater than one. This is a particularly cogent issue in light of recent developments in astrobiology in which the first three terms, which all involve purely astronomical observations, have now been fully determined. It is now apparent that most stars harbor families of planets. Indeed, many of those planets will be in the star’s habitable zones.”
In short, thanks to improvements in instrumentation and methodology, scientists have been able to determine the rate at which stars form in our galaxy. Furthermore, recent surveys for extra-solar planets have led some astronomers to estimate that our galaxy could contains as many as 100 billion potentially-habitable planets. If evidence could be found of another civilization in Earth’s history, it would further constrain the Drake Equation.
They then address the likely geologic consequences of human industrial civilization and then compare that fingerprint to potentially similar events in the geologic record. These include the release of isotope anomalies of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen and nitrogen, which are a result of greenhouse gas emissions and nitrogen fertilizers. As they indicate in their study:
“Since the mid-18th Century, humans have released over 0.5 trillion tons of fossil carbon via the burning of coal, oil and natural gas, at a rate orders of magnitude faster than natural long-term sources or sinks. In addition, there has been widespread deforestation and addition of carbon dioxide into the air via biomass burning.”
They also consider increased rates of sediment flow in rivers and its deposition in coastal environments, as a result of agricultural processes, deforestation, and the digging of canals. The spread of domesticated animals, rodents and other small animals are also considered – as are the extinction of certain species of animals – as a direct result of industrialization and the growth of cities.
The presence of synthetic materials, plastics, and radioactive elements (caused by nuclear power or nuclear testing) will also leave a mark on the geological record – in the case of radioactive isotopes, sometimes for millions of years. Finally, they compare past extinction level events to determine how they would compare to a hypothetical event where human civilization collapsed. As they state:
“The clearest class of event with such similarities are the hyperthermals, most notably the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (56 Ma), but this also includes smaller hyperthermal events, ocean anoxic events in the Cretaceous and Jurassic, and significant (if less well characterized) events of the Paleozoic.”
These events were specifically considered because they coincided with rises in temperatures, increases in carbon and oxygen isotopes, increased sediment, and depletions of oceanic oxygen. Events that had a very clear and distinct cause, such as the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event (caused by an asteroid impact and massive volcanism) or the Eocene-Oligocene boundary (the onset of Antarctic glaciation) were not considered.
According to the team, the events they did consider (known as “hyperthermals”) show similarities to the Anthropocene fingerprint that they identified. In particular, according to research cited by the authors, the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) shows signs that could be consistent with anthorpogenic climate change. These include:
“[A] fascinating sequence of events lasting 100–200 kyr and involving a rapid input (in perhaps less than 5 kyr) of exogenous carbon into the system, possibly related to the intrusion of the North American Igneous Province into organic sediments. Temperatures rose 5–7?C (derived from multiple proxies), and there was a negative spike in carbon isotopes (>3%), and decreased ocean carbonate preservation in the upper ocean.”
Finally, the team addressed some possible research directions that might improve the constraints on this question. This, they claim, could consist of a “deeper exploration of elemental and compositional anomalies in extant sediments spanning previous events be performed”. In other words, the geological record for these extinction events should be examined more closely for anomalies that could be associated with industrial civilization.
If any anomalies are found, they further recommend that the fossil record could be examined for candidate species, which would raise questions about their ultimate fate. Of course, they also acknowledge that more evidence is necessary before the Silurian Hypothesis can be considered viable. For instance, many past events where abrupt Climate Change took place have been linked to changes in volcanic/tectonic activity.
Second, there is the fact that current changes in our climate are happening faster than in any other geological period. However, this is difficult to say for certain since there are limits when it comes to the chronology of the geological record. In the end, more research will be necessary to determine how long previous extinction events (those that were not due to impacts) took as well.
Beyond Earth, this study may also have implications for the study of past life on planets like Mars and Venus. Here too, the authors suggest how explorations of both could reveal the existence of past civilizations, and maybe even bolster the possibility of finding evidence of past civilizations on Earth.
“We note here that abundant evidence exists of surface water in ancient Martian climates (3.8 Ga), and speculation that early Venus (2 Ga to 0.7 Ga) was habitable (due to a dimmer sun and lower CO2 atmosphere) has been supported by recent modeling studies,” they state. “Conceivably, deep drilling operations could be carried out on either planet in future to assess their geological history. This would constrain consideration of what the fingerprint might be of life, and even organized civilization.”
Two key aspects of the Drake Equation, which addresses the probability of finding life elsewhere in the galaxy, are the sheer number of stars and planets out there and the amount of time life has had to evolve. Until now, it has been assumed that one planet would give rise to one intelligent species capable of advanced technology and communications.
But if this number should prove to be more, we may a find a galaxy filled with civilizations, both past and present. And who knows? The remains of a once advanced and great non-human civilization may very well be right beneath us!