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Julie Hambleton
Julie Hambleton
December 3, 2023 ·  6 min read

The Planet Could Have Catastrophic Surprises in Store

Recorded human history is a tiny sliver in the vast history of our planet. What many people don’t realize, is that the world as we know it today was not the same planet that early humans knew. Over the course of human history (and long before it, as well) the Earth’s climate, topography, and various environments have changed drastically. We are still only just beginning to understand our climate’s history over the ages, and what we are learning suggests that we could be in for some catastrophic surprises. (1)

Catastrophic Surprises In-Store For Planet Earth

The Earth’s climate has never been stagnant. Since the dawn of time, there have been long periods of warming, followed by deep dives into ice ages. This has gone on for hundreds of thousands of years. (1)

We are currently in a period of relatively tectonic and climatic peace and, of course, warmth. In fact, today’s temperatures are still 13 degrees celsius, less than the warmest era the Earth has ever experienced. Climate scientists have studied these various eras to attempt to predict what our future might hold. They say that over the next few centuries, catastrophic surprises due to climate change are on the horizon, and the human race is making them worse. (1)

In just a few decades, the human race has caused (1):

  • The death of up to half of the Earth’s tropical coral reefs
  • The melting of 10 trillion tons of ice
  • A spike in global temperatures
  • A 30% increase in ocean acidity

Essentially, though the Earth’s climate has always been changing, we are causing it to change at a rate like never before. It is too fast for the planet and its plant and animal life to adapt. (1)

CO2 Levels Have Always Controlled the Climate

Much of how hot or cold the Earth depends on the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) is in our atmosphere. High CO2 levels make the Earth warmer, and low CO2 levels make it colder. Extremely low levels can plunge the planet into an ice age, and extremely high levels can make many parts completely unlivable. (1)

50 Million Years Ago

As we know it today, the world has two areas that are essentially made entirely of ice: The Arctic and the Antarctic. 50 million years ago, these places were covered in forests and hosted a variety of plants and animals. The temperature was about 13 degrees Celsius warmer than today, and it would have been impossible for humans to live there. (1)

During this period, incredible natural events like volcanic eruptions occurred, releasing massive amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere and warming the planet even further. We can see evidence of violent storms, incredible rainfall, and massive flooding resulting from this “sudden” change – about nine degrees over 20,000 years. (1)

Much of the Earth’s oceans became so warm that complex life couldn’t exist there. The extreme amounts of CO2 acidified the oceans and destroyed the coral reef. It took the oceans over 200,000 years to recover from this. (1)

In this time period, CO2 levels ranged from 600 to up to 1,400 ppm. Today, our levels sit dangerously at 410ppm. (1)

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16 Million Years Ago

A little bit less far back in the planet’s past, CO2 levels were between 400 and 500ppm. Even during this time period, the Earth was significantly more tropical than it is today. Massive parts of the United States were oceans; other parts, like the Columbia River canyons, were uninhabitable places flowing with hot rock. (1)

There were highly active volcanoes that spewed CO2 into the atmosphere for millions of years during this time. They raised the CO2 from 400 to 500ppm and warmed the planet to four to eight degrees higher than today’s temperatures. Barren places like the most northern parts of Canada were lush with vegetation, and the sea level was 150 feet higher than it is currently. (1)

The Antarctic ice sheet melted the equivalent of 30 to 80% of today’s ice sheet. It has always been highly vulnerable to even slight changes, and today it might be even more so. (1)

Much of the heat in this time was caused by volcanic eruptions. Today, there are no natural volcanoes in existence that can do the same thing, but there is one thing that can: Industry. The amount of CO2 spewed by the human race in the modern, industrial civilization threatens to push us far beyond the 500ppm of CO2 from 16 million years ago. It could cause catastrophic surprises that we can’t even imagine. (1)

3 Million Years Ago

In this time period, CO2 levels were ever-so-slightly lower than they are now at 400ppm. The planet was three to four degrees warmer than it is now, and sea levels were 80 meters higher than today. It is these levels of CO2 that pulled the Earth decisively out of an ice age. (2)

The world was wetter but also much more prone to wildfires. Hurricanes were incredibly powerful during this time, just as they threaten to become in today’s climate. Currently, Earth is projected to return to the state similar to what it was 3 million years ago, and perhaps even more so. (2)

129,000 Years Ago

This was the last time the planet was about the same temperature that it is today. In this era, however, CO2 levels were only at 228 ppm. However, the sea levels were 20 to 30 feet higher than they are today – about a third of what is now Florida was underwater. (1)

Climate scientists are attempting to figure out what caused the sea levels to be so high despite the temperature being more or less the same as today. One theory is the collapse of 300-foot tall ice cliffs in Antarctica. This is disconcertingly similar to what is happening in our current climate. (3)

20,000 Years Ago

In this era, the Earth’s CO2 levels were at just 180 ppm, and the temperature was five to six degrees celsius colder than it is today. This time period proves how sensitive our planet is and how big a difference those few degrees can make. (1)

Much of North America and Northern Europe was covered in ice sheets, and the sea level was 400 feet lower than it is today. Places that are normally hot and dry are cold and wet. Mountains typically covered in trees and flowers are blanketed in rivers of ice. (1)

10,000 Years Ago

The Earth has gone through many changes in the last 10,000 years. At this point, CO2 levels were only at about 280ppm. Various large animals had gone extinct, and millions of gallons of water from melting ice caused sea levels to rise hundreds of feet. (1)

Formerly nomadic humans also began developing agriculture and began setting up civilizations where they were. The Earth was still thawing from the previous ice age, and areas that humans and other animals used to occupy were steadily covered by water. In this era, modern coastlines began to form. (1)

The climate has been relatively stable since this time period, except for the last few decades, where warming has sped up drastically. This is highly problematic because, as history proves, that even small changes in temperatures, CO2 levels, and sea levels can be incredibly destructive for the human race and our planet as we know it. (1)

What This Means For Us

The short story is that when you look at the history of the Earth, it is clear that even small changes can cause catastrophic surprises in our future. The current temperatures and CO2 levels combined with the rate at which they are increasing are highly concerning. (4)

The climate crisis must continue to be addressed, otherwise, our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren might not have much of a planet to live on.

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  1. Never miss a story from The Atlantic..” The Atlantic. Peter Brannen. 2021
  2. Mid-Pleistocene transition in glacial cycles explained by declining CO2 and regolith removal.” Science Mag. M. Willeit, et al. April 13, 2019.
  3. Agu
  4. When A Killer Climate Catastrophe Struck the Wolrd’s Ocean.” The Atlantic.