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What if you could get in a time machine, crank a lever, and catapult yourself back millions of years to a scene straight out of The Lost World? It’s all breathtaking and worth an Instagram shot (because you brought your smartphone) until the dinosaurs start dropping dead.
You probably already know about the enormous impact CO2 emissions have had on climate change, unless you’ve been crawling around a cave in some remote part of the planet. Now a new study has just revealed that humans have been sabotaging the planet even more than we thought—a catastrophe Earth hasn’t seen in 56 million years is looming in our frighteningly near future.
As soon as five generations from now, the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) will be déjà vu. If that doesn't sound ominous enough, this was the era during which carbon dioxide levels were at an all-time high because of volcanic eruptions, wildfires, and from the seafloor and melting permafrost releasing methane. Fast-forward to 2018, and we have somehow managed to recreate those emission levels ourselves.
“If the present trend of anthropogenic emissions continues, we can expect to reach a PETM‐scale accumulation of atmospheric carbon in as few as 140 to 259 years (about 5 to 10 human generations),” said Philip D. Gingerich, professor emeritus at the University of Michigan’s earth science department, in the study just published in Geophysical Research Letters.
Gingerich’s study used projections of human carbon emissions to figure out how long our species has until we meet the same fate as the dinosaurs. He used previous studies that had determined when the PETM began to threaten Earth, and how rapid the accumulation of atmospheric CO2 was.
The story told by fossils, carbon isotopes, and other ancient remnants is grim. Planet-wide temperatures spiked anywhere from 9 to 14.4 degrees Fahrenheit. The tropical Atlantic was basically an enormous hot tub at 96.8 degrees. Up to half the microscopic creatures in the seas perished, and along with them, the creatures that depended on them as a food source. Any land animals that managed to survive shrunk in size.
PETM rates of carbon dioxide emissions were already astronomical as the giant lizards breathed their last, but it’s still nothing compared to the destruction humans have caused. If these rates continue zooming upward, the emissions Gingerich projected into the future (starting when carbon dioxide emissions were first recorded in 1959) showed that we will be entering a whole new PETM in just 140 years. 259 years from now, it will hit an all-time high.
By the way, the Earth took 150,000 years to recover from the last PETM. Think about that next time you start your car.