Article 47: It may take a couple of ‘weeks’, but there will be a new glacial period, Betelgeuse will explode in a supernova, the coral reef ecosystems will recover and the widening East African Rift valley will be flooded by the Red Sea.
What about ‘tomorrow’?
While predictions of the future of life, of our planet and Solar System and of the universe itself can never be absolutely certain, present scientific understanding in various fields has allowed a projected course for the furthest future events to be sketched out, if only in the broadest strokes. These fields include astrophysics, which has revealed how planets and stars form, interact and die; particle physics, which has revealed how matter behaves at the smallest scales; evolutionary biology, which predicts how life will evolve over time and plate tectonics, which shows how continents shift over millennia.
All predictions of the future of the Earth, the Solar System and the Universe must account for the second law of thermodynamics, which states that entropy – or a loss of the energy available to do work – must increase over time. Stars eventually must exhaust their supply of hydrogen fuel and burn out. Besides that, close encounters will gravitationally fling planets from their star systems, and star systems from galaxies. Eventually, matter itself will come under the influence of radioactive decay, as even the most stable materials break apart into subatomic particles.
Here are some of these predictions, based on astrophysics, particle physics, evolutionary biology and geology:
20.000 Years from now (YFN): The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, the 2.600 km2 (1.000 sq. mi) area of Ukraine and Belarus, left deserted by the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, becomes safe for human life again.
50.000 YFN: The current interglacial period ends, sending the Earth back into a glacial period of the current ice age, regardless of the effects of anthropogenic global warming.
100.000 YFN: The proper motion of stars across the celestial sphere, which is the result of their movement through the galaxy, renders many of the constellations unrecognizable and causes astrologers to imagine new constellations.
A possible new constellation of stars? Credit to artist Margaret Munz-Losch
500.000 YFN: The Earth will have likely been hit by a meteorite of roughly 1 km in diameter, assuming it cannot be averted.
950.000 YFN: Meteor Crater, a large impact crater in Arizona, considered the “freshest” of its kind, will be eroded away by this time.
1 million YFN: The Earth will likely have undergone a super-volcanic eruption, large enough to erupt 3.200 km3 of magma, an event comparable to the Toba super-eruption, 75.000 years ago.
1 million YFN: Highest estimated time until the red supergiant star Betelgeuse explodes in a supernova. The explosion is expected to be easily visible in daylight. I look forward to it!
1 million YFN: Without maintenance, the Great Pyramid of Giza will be eroded into un-recognizability.
On the Moon, Neil Armstrong’s “one small step for a man” footprint, at Tranquility Base, will be eroded by this time, along with those left by all twelve Apollo moonwalkers, due to the accumulated effects of space weathering. (Normal erosion processes, active on Earth, are not present, due to the Moon’s almost complete lack of an atmosphere.)
1.4 million YFN: The star Gliese 710 passes as close as 1,1 light years to the Sun before moving away. This may gravitationally perturb members of the Oort cloud, a halo of icy bodies orbiting at the edge of the Solar System, thereafter increasing the likelihood of a cometary impact in the inner Solar System.
2 million YFN: Estimated time required for coral reef ecosystems to physically rebuild and biologically recover from the current, human-caused ocean acidification.
2 million+ YFN: The Grand Canyon will erode further, deepening slightly, but principally widening into a broad valley surrounding the Colorado River.
10 million YFN: The widening East African Rift valley is flooded by the Red Sea, causing a new ocean basin to divide the continent of Africa and the African Plate into the newly formed Nubian Plate and the Somali Plate.
This basemap is a Space Shuttle radar topography image by NASA.
Thanks to Wikipedia, Timeline of the far future, and to Alan Weisman for his book ‘The world without us’