Our last gasp before we burn

Danger ahead: Earth’s natural cycles could be catastrophic if we keep breaking ecosystems. (Delil Souleiman/AFP)

Danger ahead: Earth’s natural cycles could be catastrophic if we keep breaking ecosystems. (Delil Souleiman/AFP)

The Fall. That’s how we talk about it these days; the first catastrophe. From the way our storytellers weave it, it didn’t seem like the humanity-defining moment that it was when things started to crumble.
There had been gigantic wars and chaos around the world, costing millions of lives, and nuclear disasters. Killing ourselves seemed like the worst thing that could happen. We were in charge. We could build and destroy, seemingly replacing God.

How wrong we were.

As so often happens, it started with drought and bread. By the mid-21st century, our attention was on the livestream from the Mars colony (a public-private partnership between Nasa and American companies).

A Chinese colony on the Moon was building our first proper colony ship, using the Moon’s low gravity and mining passing asteroids to make a vessel that would take us into the darkness beyond our solar system.

Our imagination captured, we ignored what was happening on the only place known to have oxygen­ — Earth.

A quick succession of El Niños and La Niñas meant floods and drought destroyed crops in both hemispheres. All this had been predicted decades before by institutions such as the United Nations. Plans should have been in place to lessen the damage. They weren’t and food prices exploded; governments rushed to subsidise bread and maize.

It didn’t work.

After decades of hollowing-out, countries didn’t have the resources to import scarce food for more than a few weeks. Despots won even more elections, promising a quick fix. Foreigners and minorities were blamed. Walls and fences tried to maintain the status quo in wealthier countries.

When the quick fixes didn’t work, the military took over. More human rights were given up in the hope that a controlling elite would fix the food system.

But a broken environment and an ever-warming world rendered the increasingly extreme fixes futile. And each year meant more intense floods and earth-cracking droughts.

By the 22nd century, famine and violence had reversed all the progress we had made in healthcare and in creating fairer societies. Antibiotic resistance, climate manipulation and militarised nanotechnology meant that nothing we used to rely on, from predictable seasons to a mild flu each winter, held true. Millions of deaths became billions.

The rich, through corporations, tried to use the Mars and Moon colonies as a technological base to leave Earth. But anger at inequality finally spilled over from a population that no longer had anything to lose. Unable to afford bread, people in Paris sharpened their guillotines and started a global movement.

Everyone would be stuck here.

Then the Earth’s long-term, natural changes started to kick in. Because we had stopped trusting science, we had lost yottabytes of research and didn’t pick up on the clues. By the start of the 21st century, we knew about all the different catastrophes that lay in wait. Research had looked far back into the past and learned about all the global patterns that would be repeated, threatening our future.

But we had forgotten their lessons. So we didn’t understand when our compasses started to shift and north stopped being somewhere above Canada and Russia, or when entire parts of the planet became even hotter than elsewhere, for no apparent reason.

It was only when someone found an abandoned archive that we realised that this was the long-delayed “flipping of the poles”, a natural phenomenon that turns north into south every 200 000 years. The magnetic poles had previously helped to create a stable shield around the Earth, deflecting a lot of solar radiation. As the poles shifted and wobbled, intense heat started to build up in areas where global warming had already made life untenable.

It was that little bit of extra pressure on an already fractured Earth that did it for us. The Fall. Ecosystems fell apart and so did our world. The billion people left retreated into small pockets, and we lost entire communities along the equator, thanks to an asteroid crashing into Rwanda.

This threw so much dust into the atmosphere that plants started to photosynthesise poorly and our crops gave us less food.

What big animals were left couldn’t take even more rapid change in the environment. Instead we got a whole new world of bugs and bacteria. These ate our crops.

A few hundred million people survived. Just.

The Fall wiped out most of humanity and ended the project of civilisation. It won’t take much more of a cataclysm to turn the lights off on this precarious existence. It will probably be the Sun. Whatever we do, that’s the one we cannot control and build around.

Our storytellers say that it will die and, as it does, it will start to burn brighter and grow bigger. They know this because, back when we used to look deep into space, we saw it happen to other suns and the planets around them.

More radiation will drive mineral reactions that decrease carbon in the atmosphere, to the point where the last plants cannot photosynthesise. As the sun expands, the Earth will become too hot and the oceans will evaporate, before the ground starts to melt.

At this point, global warming will become uncontrollable. Just before life on Earth dies out, the Sun will swallow Earth.

If only we had kept this planet healthy for long enough for us to become a space species.

Research published last year — New Archaeomagnetic Directional Records from Iron Age Southern Africa and Implications for the South Atlantic Anomaly — found that the Earth’s magnetic field is weakening, or “undergoing a rapid decay”.

This usually happens every 200 000 years, but it hasn’t happened in 800 000 years.

The research on the South Atlantic Anomaly — a lump of melted rock nearly 3 000km below Africa’s continental surface — shows that the magnetic field created by the magnetic rock has been weakening for about 160 years.

The research also concluded that this weakening plays a role in triggering a shifting of the poles. 

It’s natural to lose our way

If world leaders do what they should be doing about climate change, the effect of the flipping poles will be far less dystopian.

Modern humans have never had to live through a flipping of the poles. Our civilisation is built around certainties, like north being north.

In a best-case scenario, we will be resilient enough for it to not be catastrophic. But there will be damage.

The process takes between 1 000 and 10 000 years, when magnetic north and south are continually moving.

That means any compasses that rely on magnets will be useless. Flight might become impossible until another system of navigation is created.

Without a properly working magnetic shield, short-term holes will keep opening up in the ozone layer, allowing in large amounts of radiation. This will drive up cancer rates.

Solar storms will also become more frequent, disrupting radio waves and communication, as well causing power outages.

For animals that rely on geomagnetism for navigation, such as turtles and pigeons, getting around will become confusing.

We have time to kill ourselves

The Sun will die and swallow the Earth in just over seven billion years. That’s a long, longtime away; enough time for us to have killed ourselves in some other way.

Life on this blue blob, spinning through space with trillions of different parts fighting each other for superiority, is already improbable. But the constant tinkering of humans, as well as our short-term thinking, seems to be the greatest danger for our survival.

We won’t all die — humans are really good at surviving in whichever environment we land up in, from frozen Arctic tundra to scorching Pretoria heat — but any one of these scenarios will end this whole civilisation project.

Take your pick: a nuclear exchange between self-important dictators that escalates to the point where all populated areas are destroyed; artificial intelligence decides that we’re too unpredictable to work with so logically concludes that we need to be removed; our shift away from accepting science means preventable diseases start wiping out entire populations; tinkering with nanotechnology leads to an uncontrollable change or virus; or something we have never thought of, like all that music we keep sending into space angering an alien species that comes and destroys Earth.

Being a space species is the only way to avoid this — except that won’t solve the human nature part that keeps us tinkering our way towards chaos.

Sipho Kings

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