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SYFY WIRE The Ark

Did a Supercomputer Predict the End of Humanity?

Only if you're willing to be loose about the definitions of a few words.

By Cassidy Ward

In SYFY’s The Ark, humanity has to abandon the planet when it becomes uninhabitable, roughly a century from now. In the real world, there aren’t any threats to our ecosystem that are quite that dramatic. Even the very real and ongoing effects of climate change won’t unravel the planet’s ability to support life on so short a timescale.

How to Watch

Catch up on The Ark on Peacock.

Still, no matter what we do, the Earth has an eventual expiration date. Ten billion years from now, give or take, the Sun will die so dramatically that it will take the inner planets with it, but the Earth will become uninhabitable much earlier. As the Sun ages, it grows ever larger and ever brighter, shedding a little more solar radiation on our planet all the time. Over the course of about a billion years, the Earth will lose the ability to shed heat, the oceans will boil, and life on Earth will perish.

There’s a lot of wiggle room between a century and a billion years from now, and there are a lot of moving parts when we peer into our planet’s future. Scientists have employed all manner of scientific data, models, and simulations to narrow in on when we might get our curtain call. Recently, a smattering of headlines have claimed that a supercomputer predicted the end of humanity. While technically accurate, the whole truth is a bit more complicated.

For More on the End of the World:
Which is the More Accurate Apocalypse: Deep Impact vs. Armageddon
NASA’s Parker Solar Probe Could Prevent an “Internet Apocalypse”
Unpacking the Apocalypse: How Did the World End in Peacock’s Twisted Metal?

No, a Supercomputer Didn’t Predict the End of Humanity

The supercomputer in question was a sequence of computer models taking into account plate tectonics and biology into the distant future. The apocalypse it predicted won’t happen for about 250 million years and it won’t target humanity specifically. Instead, the models predicted the end of nearly all mammals a quarter of a billion years from now, according to a 2023 study published in Nature Geoscience.

Mammals have existed since the age of the dinosaurs, but they really picked up steam about 55 million years ago, taking advantage of niches left over in the aftermath of the asteroid. Most of that history has unraveled without the influence of humanity, and the simulations assume that most of the next 250 million years will as well. It doesn’t consider the impact of anthropogenic climate change or humanity’s exploitation of the planet. Instead, it focuses on the machinations of the Sun and the Earth.

Surface temperature map of Earth with potential future supercontinent

About a quarter of a billion years from now, the Earth will face a three-pronged threat which, according to the simulations, will spell doom for mammals. That far into the future, the Sun will be about 2.5% brighter, raising average temperatures around the globe. Meanwhile, the continents will have cobbled themselves together into a new supercontinent, dubbed Pangaea Ultima. The increase in plate interactions will drive a spike in earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Volcanic rifting and outgassing, increased solar radiation, and continentality: the mammalian triple threat.

The formation of Pangaea Ultima will come with dramatic volcanic eruptions, dumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Researchers estimate atmospheric carbon will be twice its current level, making it even harder for the planet to shed heat from an ever-brighter Sun. And a supercontinent makes the whole situation worse. Having all of the land smooshed into one place in the tropics will increase the amount of landlocked terrain and drive extreme temperatures farther from the coast.

Models estimate that as little as 8% - 16% of total land mass will be habitable to mammals, and they’ll have to fight for those spaces alongside everyone else. Most of those environments will be constrained to the coastlines, Pangaea Ultima’s interior will likely contain large wastelands with average temperature between 104 and 158 Fahrenheit (40 and 70 Celsius).

That combination of forces will almost definitely trigger a mass extinction event and a dramatic evolutionary upheaval. It might even spell the end for the Class of Mammalia, but it almost certainly won’t be the end of humanity. By then we’ll likely have died out, moved on, or evolved into something which we might not call human. Maybe some combination of the three.

Catch up with The Ark when it returns for Season 2, this summer on SYFY.