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September 23, 2013

Mitchel Olszak: The heat is on for planet Earth

NEW CASTLE — Warming temperatures are destined to wipe out all life on planet Earth.

So human beings will need to find a new home in order to survive.

That’s the conclusion of research released last week that calculated the point when Earth will no longer be habitable. We now have been given a deadline of somewhere between 1.75 and 3.25 billion years.

There’s a lot of wiggle room in that estimate, and none of us will be here to determine its accuracy. But I suppose it’s something to consider.

This calculation, produced by British scientists at the University of East Anglia, appears in the latest issue of the publication Astrobiology. In case you missed it, the data presented has nothing to do with current debates over global warming and greenhouse gases. Instead, the end of the road for life on Earth is based on the long-known fact that as the sun ages, it produces increasing amounts of heat. And at some point, this planet will no longer be considered habitable.

Because of rising solar temperatures, the zone around the sun that’s habitable for life is slowly moving outward — at the rate of an astronomic unit every 10 billion years.

An astronomic unit is the distance between the Earth and the sun, roughly 93 million miles, give or take an inch. This rate and the consequences it would have on Earth were used to produce the estimates for how much longer life on this planet has.

When that time is reached, Mars will fall into the habitable zone. So whoever’s left on Earth could pack up and go there.

But there is at least one problem with that plan. Mars doesn’t have much of an atmosphere. And certainly not one that could support typical Earth life.

Of course, it’s a matter of speculation what life might look like in a couple of billion years. Maybe creatures on Earth will be able to adapt to dramatically hotter temperatures. Some microscopic creatures now survive in scalding hot deep-sea thermal vents.

And how will humans evolve in that time frame, assuming the species survives? Maybe we will be able to transfer our consciousness into robot bodies that are impervious to heat.

Science fiction is full of all sorts of scenarios regarding humanity in the distant future. They range from the expectation we will wipe ourselves — and most other life — off the face of the planet. Two billion years gives nature plenty of time to evolve another round of highly developed creatures as replacements.

At the other extreme is the notion that humans will survive, and evolve into beings who need no physical bodies. Maybe our descendants will have absolutely no interest in the sun and its temperature.

All of this makes for an intriguing intellectual exercise, but it’s pointless for us to worry about it. Certainly there are plenty of problems occurring now that humans could strive to improve if they were so inclined. Working on them constructively might help to provide a brighter future for the species, regardless of the temperature.

(Mitchel Olszak is editorial page editor at The News.)

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