The Future Happened 56 Million Years Ago

Image: Chris Blackhead / Flickr
Image: Chris Blackhead / Flickr

History has a way of repeating itself. Humans are currently conducting a grand experiment with Earth’s climate, but the outcome of that experiment may be foretold. According to Penn State climate scientist Richard Alley, the future—or a somewhat diluted version of it—happened 55.9 million years ago.


Geologists have long considered the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) the most direct analog to modern climate change. During the PETM, some 2,000 and 4,500 billion tons of carbon were offloaded into the atmosphere over thousands of years, for reasons that are still being debated. Today, carbon concentrations are rising even faster, and the scientific debate over who’s responsible ended long ago.

What exactly does this mean for us? Writing in Science today, Alley argues that many of the climactic and ecological changes that occurred 55.9 million years ago are likely to repeat.

Here is a non-exhaustive list of stuff that happened during the PETM:

Scientists estimate that the total amount of carbon added to the atmosphere during the PETM was similar to what humans could add today if we burned all of our fossil fuel reserves. But as Alley notes, PETM emissions were drawn out over a much longer timescale—perhaps giving life on Earth some chance to adapt. For that reason, he concludes, “the biological impacts of the PETM were likely less severe than those of human-caused emissions under a business as-usual scenario.”


Scientists are not oracles. But did any of the items on Alley’s list look eerily familiar to you? They should—what happened during the PETM is starting to happen today. It would seem our safest course of action is to try and prevent more of that ecological nightmare from unfolding.

To that end, the United States, China, and other leading carbon offenders will take a major step later this month, by signing the Paris climate accord into effect. But a lot more needs to be done.


In the immortal words of the Sacred Scrolls, all of this has happened before. Unless we act fast, all of it could happen again.



Maddie Stone is a freelancer based in Philadelphia.



So here’s just a fun little thought experiment and simplification to use on your climate doubter friends.

Google reports that there are 36.48 billion acres of land on Earth.

Google also reports that there are 7.15 billion people on Earth, so if we divied up the Earth equally, we would each be allotted about 5.10 acres per person. (A nice little farm, when you think of it.)

Google further reports that the average life expectancy is at about 70.8 years. So expect about 52*70.8~3,681 weeks per life.

Now assume, you could fit all your carbon dioxide, trash, dirty laundry or whatever you throw out in a single trash bag like you currently do once a week. However since all the land is divied up, you can only put it on your land. Also, you have OCD, so you uniformly space out the bags.

So by journey’s end there are 3,681 trash bags on your 5.10 acre property or a trash bag every 7.7 feet from each other. (Not such a nice farm anymore.)

It may be time to take seriously how much effect the billions of us are having on our little world.