People May Get Place in Geologic Time Scale

Earth: Our Blue Marble
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Q: We can now observe the role of exotic species in many habitats around the world, usually disrupting the local ecology where they were introduced by man. Do you see the growth of development and usage of transgenic organisms, nano-robots and even artificial (synthetic) life as possible key factors that will influence Earth’s biota in the near future?

NASA's Kepler telescope was launched to find other planets just like Earth.

DG: Yes, certainly. As you’ve pointed out we have already become an unprecedented kind of disruptive force in biological evolution, through our purposeful and inadvertent transport of species around the planet. With these new technologies we will have the capacity to much more dramatically affect the mechanics of evolution.

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Q: If humanity became extinct (or reduced to nearly that point) today, would the lack of maintenance of our nuclear facilities, biological warfare and disease-control laboratories have a large effect on the biosphere?

DG: The breakdown of the nuclear facilities would lead to some local disturbances for a long time, but I don’t believe there would be any large global effects from this. I think the biggest signature would be the perturbation to the carbon cycle, which will take tens of thousands of years to repair itself.

The ocean will be acidified for a similar timescale with massive effects on reefs and other biomes. The hydrological cycle will gradually return to normal as dams break down.

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Q: How do you see the possibility of the Anthropocene marking a period when humankind not only became a geological force on Earth, but also began to reach the other bodies in the solar system as a first step to largely expand its zone of influence?

DG: I don’t see it as coincidence that the great acceleration of the Anthropocene influences on Earth came during the same decades as our first exploration of the other planets. All this represents a certain phase in our technological development; I almost said "maturation" but I don’t think we can make this claim yet.

It is the same wave of technological advances that allowed us to make nuclear missiles, truly span the globe with telecommunications, commerce and rapid industrial expansion, develop the capacity to monitor our own planet from orbit and also launch spacecraft to the other planets.

Hopefully the perspective and wisdom gained from exploring the planets and seeing our own planet whole, from a distance, will facilitate the changes in behavior and outlook we will need to survive this precarious transition we are experiencing — the transition to being a self-aware, technological species with the capacity to either destroy our own civilization or ensure our long term survival.

I think it will be one or the other; I don’t think it will be anything in between. I don’t think we will muddle through. We are facing a choice where we will either become a new kind of entity on this Earth, or die trying.

Author’s note: This article is a tribute to Eugene F. Stoermer, who coined the term Anthropocene in the 1980s and is an inspiration for a whole legion of new researchers (I speak as one of his fans from Brazil). I offer my condolences to all his family and friends.

This story was provided by Astrobiology Magazine, a web-based publication sponsored by the NASA astrobiology program.

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