The Earth After Us by Dr Jan Zalasiewicz examines the geology of our planet from the view of alien explorers one hundred million years in the future.
The Earth After Us - What legacy will humans leave in the rocks?
By Jan Zalasiewicz, Lecturer in Geology at the University of Leicester
‘There is no doubt now. An organized culture arose, and settled on the land surface.We have little detail yet, and are now excavating. It seems to have been extremely shortlived. I suspect the site would not have been discovered at all had it not been associated with one of the perturbation events that we have been trying to decipher.’
One hundred million years in the future, alien explorers land on Earth. Their geologists study the layers of rock, using the many clues to piece together its history over several billion years. A story unfolds of moving and changing continents, rising and falling oceans, ice ages, and evidence of life going back many millions of years. They grow familiar with its phases of change, the rise of great new ecosystems, and occasional catastrophic collapses of life. But then they stumble on something quite different in a thin layer of rock: a striking signal of climate changes, extinctions and strange movements of wildlife across the planet. Following this trail, decoding clues in the rocks takes them to the petrified remains of cities, and finally to the fossilized bones of those, long dead, who built them.
From the perspective of 100 million years in the future–a geologist’s view–the reign of humans on Earth would seem very short: we would almost certainly have died out long before then. What footprint will we leave in the rocks? What would have become of our great cities, our roads and tunnels, our cars, our plastic cups in the far distant future? What fossils would we leave behind? Jan Zalasiewicz shows how scientists put together clues from the rocks to understand the past, its landscapes and climate, and the nature of the creatures that inhabited it. A thin layer of silt here, a trace formed by a crawling worm there–the clues are often subtle and difficult to read. But by such clues would future geologists–whether hyper-evolved rat or alien visitor–work out our story. Zalasiewicz explores which of our structures are likely to leave traces, and what future explorers might make of us and the impact we made on our environment.
Looking to the distant future gives us a warning for the present: our activities have already left a significant footprint on the planet, and not a flattering one. It is not too late to limit it. We would not wish to be dubbed by future explorers the ‘amazingly clever and utterly foolish two-legged ape’.
‘Jan Zalasiewicz places humanity in a cosmic perspective by imagining what a future civilisation might make of the fossils we would leave behind us–when our species dies out (as it inevitably will). His original approach to the science of biological history is both entertaining and thought-provoking.’ – Richard Fortey
Dr Jan Zalasiewicz is a lecturer in geology at the University of Leicester, and was formerly with the British Geological Survey. A field geologist, palaeontologist and stratigrapher, he teaches various aspects of geology and Earth history to undergraduate and postgraduate students, and researches fossil ecosystems and environments spanning over half a billion years of geological time. He has published over a hundred papers in scientific journals.
- Title: The Earth After Us
- Author: Jan Zalasiewicz
- ISBN: 978-0-19-921497-6
- Binding: Hardback
- Publisher: Oxford University Press
- Publication Date: 25 September 2008
- Pages: 272
- Price: £14.99 (hardback)
Purchase a copy or for more information please visit the Oxford University Press website .
Click here to read a feature by Dr Zalasiewicz on the Oxford University Press blog.