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Planet's Future

With the rise of human civilization about 8,000 years ago and especially since the Industrial Revolution in the mid-1700s, human beings began to alter the surface, water, and atmosphere of Earth. In doing so, they have become active geological agents, not unlike other forces of change that influence the planet. As a result, Earth’s immediate future depends to a great extent on the behavior of humans. For example, the widespread use of fossil fuels is releasing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and threatens to warm the planet’s surface. This global warming could melt glaciers and the polar ice caps, which could flood coastlines around the world and many island nations. In effect, the carbon dioxide that was removed from Earth’s early atmosphere by the oceans and by primitive plant and animal life, and subsequently buried as fossilized remains in sedimentary rock, is being released back into the atmosphere and is threatening the existence of living things.

Even without human intervention, Earth will continue to change because it is geologically active. Many scientists believe that some of these changes can be predicted. For example, based on studies of the rate that the seafloor is spreading in the Red Sea, some geologists predict that in 200 million years the Red Sea will be the same size as the Atlantic Ocean is today. Other scientists predict that the continent of Asia will break apart millions of years from now, and as it does, Lake Baikal in Siberia will become a vast ocean, separating two landmasses that once made up the Asian continent.

In the far, far distant future, however, scientists believe that Earth will become an uninhabitable planet, scorched by the Sun. Knowing the rate at which nuclear fusion occurs in the Sun and knowing the Sun’s mass, astrophysicists (scientists who study stars) have calculated that the Sun will become brighter and hotter about 3 billion years from now, when it will be hot enough to boil Earth’s oceans away. Based on studies of how other Sun-like stars have evolved, scientists predict that the Sun will become a red giant, a star with a very large, hot atmosphere, about 7 billion years from now. As a red giant the Sun’s outer atmosphere will expand until it engulfs the planet Mercury. The Sun will then be 2,000 times brighter than it is now and so hot it will melt Earth’s rocks. Earth will end its existence as a burnt cinder.

Three billion years is the life span of millions of human generations, however. Perhaps by then, humans will have learned how to journey beyond the solar system to colonize other planets in the Milky Way Galaxy and find another place to call “home.”

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