Explore the future
5 MILLION YEARS IN THE FUTURE
The Earth is in an Ice Age, a cycle which typically lasts about 100,000 years. Humans are extinct and much of the world’s fresh water is locked up in the huge ice caps that reach as far South as Paris and North as Buenos Aires. On the edges of the ice, animals have adapted to the bitter cold and vicious winters; in the tropics, the rainforest has all but disappeared, and been replaced by a dry savannah.
Yet change is in the air – a sudden increase in volcanic eruptions pours greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the planet begins to warm up, and the melting ice creates massive, devastating floods.
The world’s geography
The new landscapes
Movement of the African and European plates has left the Mediterranean land locked. Combined with the drier atmosphere, this has resulted in the Mediterranean Sea largely drying out. Global temperatures are five or six degrees Celsius below the present day. There are glaciers in the Alps; and beyond them is the Mediterranean basin. This is 6,500ft or 2000m below sea level. It has brine lakes and salt flats surrounded by karst – dry, ridged limestone. There are deep cracks in the limestone, called Grykes. On the rare occasions when it rains, the surface of the salt turns to a salty mush. Mountains rise out of the plains. They were once Mediterranean islands. Otherwise the surface is completely flat and white. Smudges of red are made by salt-loving bacteria. The salt flats shimmer. Here and there are lakes of very salty water – ten times the salinity of seawater. They have no fish – only some algae, bacteria and some insects can survive. Clouds of brine flies flourish here. In Southern Europe, beyond the icecaps, there are clusters of rowan and birch trees.
NORTH EUROPEAN ICE
The Earth is in an extreme Ice Age. Northwest Europe is battered by westerlies carrying so there will be severe blizzards in the bitterly cold winter. Ice sheets cover most of N America and all of Scandinavia, and reach down into Northern Europe. Huge icebergs float in the freezing ocean. Because so much water has frozen into the icecaps, the sea level has fallen by 500ft (150m). England and France are joined by a frozen plain of sand and gravel – the tundra. Winter night-time temperatures are -60oC. Meltwater gathers in the summer. There are cracked and broken rocks all around. Domes, called pingos, rise up where frozen water has pushed up the rocks. The few plants are mainly cottongrass, lichens and heather. Some hardy trees like willow grow low and gnarled. All these grow in shallow pockets of soil. Flies gather around the pools, and are fed on by migrant birds, which spend the winters further south.
NORTH AMERICAN DESERT
The drier climate has had dramatic effects on the interior of the North American continent, turning it into a vast, cool desert frequently battered by fierce sandstorms. The desert is as bitterly cold as the Gobi desert once was. It stretches about 2,500 kilometres to the base of the Rocky Mountains. The piercing winds that stir up the sandstorms scour away the soil. A little snow falls infrequently on high ground. Tornados frequently rip across the area.
The Amazon grassland lies at the tip of what was once South America. In the Amazon basin, the extensive rainforests are now reduced to a few tiny pockets, surrounded by extensive areas of tall grass savannah with scattered trees. Rainfall is low and the Amazon river has dwindled. In these dry conditions there are frequent bushfires, triggered by lightning or the Sun. The fires cover huge areas at great speed. Grasses rapidly recover from these fires; slow-growing trees are few.
100 MILLION YEARS IN THE FUTURE
Volcanoes belching out greenhouse gases eventually turn the Earth into a hothouse – sweltering, steamy and wet. Rainforests coat the land and the atmosphere is rich in carbon dioxide and oxygen. Animals adapt to the damp warmth; insects grow huge, flying insects have metre wingspans, and the world’s biggest creatures walk the Earth. But the Earth itself is restless. Although volcanoes have been active throughout, now, huge eruptions bring the planet to the brink of its worst disaster ever. Most of life is annihilated, leaving the world barren and empty. Or is it?
The world’s geography
The new landscapes
100 million years from now; the Earth warms up. The Ice Age has ended. The ice has melted, and sea levels have risen, changing the shape of the coastlines. The continents are still moving. Australia has collided with Asia, pushing up a huge mountain range. Part of Africa has split off and become fused to the tip of Asia. Antarctica has been pulled north by a subduction zone at the bottom of the Indian ocean and now lies partially in the tropics. Instead of snow, ice and penguins, there is now dense tropical rainforest. This rainforest has evolved from whatever plant species made it to the isolated continent first. Similarly, the animals there have radiated to fill all the available niches have evolved from relatively few ancestors, as reaching this virgin continent was so difficult. The lichens and, mosses and algae that lived in the Antarctic in the human era have evolved and developed. Seeds and spores from other parts of the world have been carried to the Antarctic. New species have been developed by adaptive radiation. Antarctica lies in the tropics, with trade winds bringing warm rain all the year round. The winds bring seeds and spores from South America. Spiders and insects have been carried there as ‘aerial plankton’. Birds follow them, staying for the seeds, fruits and insects. The forests are temperate and wet.
The Ice Age has ended, releasing water so and sea levels have risen, changing the shape of the coastlines. The continents are still moving. Australia has collided with Asia, pushing up a huge mountain range. Antarctica has moved north, warming up and supporting a huge, lush forest. Part of Africa has split off and become fused to the tip of Asia. These two land masses have created a vast inland sea in the area that was once the Bay of Bengal. The colliding tectonic plates have thrown up a volcanic mountain range along the line of fusion, cutting this inland sea off from the oceans to the south. The Bay of Bengal is now enclosed, cut off from the open sea by the arrival of Mozambique and Madagascar moving east. What were the Himalayas are eroded to low hills. Water run-off from the mountains has washed fertile sediment into the landlocked sea, making it shallower and rich in nutrients. The sea is a vast, brackish swamp. The water is thick and impenetrable to light. Average temperatures are 40°C. Humidity is 99% all the year round. These greenhouse conditions are ideal for plant growth. Crowded trees and other plants stabilise the mud with their network of roots.
Australia has travelled so far north – into the northern hemisphere – that it has collided with Asia and North America. The collision of Australia and Asia has resulted in a massive mountain chain, far higher than the Himalayas – 10,000 metres high. The mountains have sharp, uneroded peaks. Rock compression has thrown up the Great Plateau, the broadest tract of uplands on Earth. The climate of the peaks is harsh, but a higher concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere makes life easier for plant life. There is heavy rain on the mountains, and heavy seasonal rain on the plateau. On the great high-altitude plateau formed between Asia and Australia, silver spiders spread their nets to catch fluffy seeds carried on the wind. The changing temperature and atmosphere of Earth encourages the growth of large arthropods – insects, crustaceans and arachnids. So the spiders are bigger than their human-era ancestors, and they store the seeds in huge granaries. The long wings of the Windrunner of the Great Plateau, descended from the cranes, are adapted for gliding at speed; while the feathered legs help with slow-speed flying. Their blue colouring helps reflect ultraviolet light at high altitudes, and the eyelid membranes are polarised to form a pair of natural sunglasses.
100 million years from now; the Earth warms up. The Ice Age has ended. The ice has melted, and sea levels have risen 100 metres, changing the shape of the coastlines. The continents are still moving. Australia has collided with Asia, pushing up a huge mountain range. Antarctica has moved north, warming up and supporting a huge, lush forest. Part of Africa has split off and become fused to the tip of Asia. Vast tracts of Russia are under water. Shallow seas spread across Northern Europe and Asia, with rocky islands – mountain peaks not yet covered by water. The seas are rich in nutrients and in bright sunlight, ideal conditions for reefs to form. The calcareous skeletons of reef organisms make a solid foundation colonised by more reef plants and animals. The corals are extinct. The reefs are built by red algae; they photosynthesise vigorously in the light. The red algae offer browsing reef animals a protein meal; and in eating this, the animal carries away the algae’s sticky spores.
200 MILLION YEARS IN THE FUTURE
After the last great mass extinction, just a few life forms had survived, and free from old pressures and competition, they have evolved into strange and bizarre creatures – beyond imagination. The slow drift of the continents over the globe has finally brought the landmasses together into one super-continent, and most of the world is covered in a huge ocean. What new life has evolved in this ocean? What has the process of evolution done to life on the supercontinent? And what will happen next?
The world’s geography
The new landscapes
There is now one large supercontinent, “Pangea II”, the bulk of which is north of the equator. The centre of this continent is a huge extreme desert, with virtually no rainfall. A single world ocean has a major effect on weather patterns. Water travels westward around the equator, being warmed by the Sun as it goes. In today’s world there are continents in the way of this equatorial current, that deflect it to the north or south before it has chance to get too warm. The Central Desert is a wilderness of sand and gravel, without clouds or rainfall. At night, this desert is as cold as the Earth has ever been. Beneath it, there is a labyrinth of limestone caves. Constant rain on the seaward slopes soaks into the rocks and accumulates in the caves. Average temperatures range from over 50°C in the summer to -30°C in the winter. The only water is from subterranean springs.
200 million years from now; a new supercontinent has formed. The land masses have all amalgamated, forming a single continent. 225 million years before mankind, the supercontinent was called “Pangaea”; and this new land mass is “Pangaea ll”. North and South America have joined the other continents. A single global ocean surrounds “Pangaea ll”. A single landmass like this creates a world of extreme climates. The Earth has now one ocean, circulating one massive continent. The ocean is so massive that from space some views would show the earth as pure blue orb of ocean. The single sea – the Global Ocean – has a huge anti-clockwise current circulating around the southern hemisphere. Life can migrate easily in this powerful current. Because of this powerful current, there is little water movement between north and south. As a result, there is a steep temperature gradient between high and low latitudes. The single ocean supports complex food chains and highly-evolved species.
A mass extinction has affected life on land and in the seas. Clouds of ash and an increase in acidity killed the plankton in the surface water. As the ocean food chain collapsed many bony fish died out. Their place was taken by surviving creatures from the deep.
The continents have drifted together to form a new supercontinent – Pangaea ll. A single landmass like this creates a world of extreme climates. The single sea – the Global Ocean – has a huge anticlockwise current circulating around the southern hemisphere. The rotation of the Earth has slowed, adding an hour to the day – now 25 hours. The sun is brighter, and temperatures have risen. Heating the ocean leads to frequent and very strong hurricanes. The sea is whipped up by these frequent hyper-canes. But the resulting rain does not travel far inland instead falling on a coastal mountain range. The Rainshadow Desert is close to the huge peaks of this volcanic mountain range. The moisture rich clouds crossing the Earth rise over the mountains, losing water as they go and starving the land behind of moisture. The hyper-canes provide high humidity; they also supply food in the form of sea creatures whipped from the surface waters and dumped in the desert.
Along latitudes about 30 to 60 degrees north, the prevailing winds are westerlies that bring huge amounts of rain to the northwest coast of the continent. This creates extensive, lush areas of temperate forest, something similar to the rainforest of northwest USA but much, much more extensive. Constant rain from saturated onshore winds, frequent westerly storms and little sunshine causes rain to fall relentlessly on the north-western region of “Pangaea ll”. The conditions are warm and humid with an atmosphere rich in carbon dioxide. These hothouse conditions, ideal for plant growth, have led to a vigorous forest, teeming with life. The continuous torrential rain has made great rivers, lakes and swamps. The tallest trees are conifers, growing to the same height as the redwoods that have dominated the region since the Triassic. Flowering plants are rare in the forest; only lichens – symbiotic associations between algae and fungi – grow everywhere. In the moisture of the forest, they have grown to tree size. The low level of the forest is a tangle of lichen trees. Their trailing feathery structures absorb moisture and photosynthesize. Their spores, bursting from sacs as animals brush by, are easily distributed.
Specialists in biomechanics generated pages of complex calculations to design our creatures in detail and to make sure they were viable. With the hard science in place, our team of 40 animators then went to work and created 3D animations of the entire family of Snowstalkers, Carakillers, Squibbons and Poggles. And while this was happening, a camera crew travelled to remote locations that could be turned into future landscapes. An Ice Age was recreated on the ice fields of the Andes in southernmost Patagonia; a future tropical world in the swamps of Northern Argentina.
Designing the Continents
Using computer modeling we mapped the continents and climates of the future. We know the continents are moving, so predicting where they will be is reasonably straightforward. For example, the Atlantic is widening at just about the rate your fingernails grow. Then from this we used computers from existing global warming studies, to decide what their climates might be like.Next our ecologists used this information to predict what kind of habitats might exist and then the real fun began: deciding how existing plants and animals could evolve and thrive in these future environments.
Designing the Animals
Populating the future world with new creatures wasn’t blind guesswork or science fiction. There’s a whole series of rules of how life evolves that we can test by looking back at the past. All we had to do was apply the same rules to the future and then add a little imagination! This gave birth to a whole range of animals – from a meter long killer worm that hunts underwater in pitch darkness by sensing water currents to a 4 meter high, 8 legged, forest dwelling squid. Together they provide an amazing and compelling sample of how events and conditions might shape Earth’s future citizens!
Enter the future – An Introductory into the Series
Our Scientific Advisors
The FUTURE is WILD would not have been possible without the support of the following scientific consultants:
Professor Robert McNeill Alexander
(chief scientific advisor)
Professor Emeritus of Biology / University of Leeds, UK
Scottish Geologist and Author
Professor Stephen Palumbi
Professor of Biology & Director of The Hopkins Marine Station / Stanford University, USA
Professor Richard Fortey
Department of Paleontology / The Natural History Museum, UK
Professor William F. Gilly
Professor of Cell and Developmental Biology and Marine Biology / Stanford University, USA
Dr. Leticia Avilés
Associate Professor, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology / University of Arizona, USA
Dr. Philip J. Currie
Head of Dinosaur Research Program and Curator of Dinosaurs and Birds / Royal Tyrell Museum of Paleontology, Canada
Professor Stephen Harris
Mammal Research Unit / University of Bristol, UK
Herpetologist / Hairy Frog Productions, UK
Dr. Roy Livermore
British Antarctic Survey, UK
Professor Karl Niklas
Liberty Hyde Bailey Professor of Plant Biology / Cornell University, USA
Professor Dr. Jeremy Rayner Alexander
Professor of Zoology / University of Leeds, UK
Professor Bruce Tiffney
Professor of Geological Sciences / University of California, USA
Professor Paul Valdes
Department of Meteorology / University of Bristol, UK
Dr. Christiane Denys
Paleontologist / Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris, France
Professor Michael Archer
Dean of Faculty of Biology / University of New South Wales, Australia
Dr. James Sweitzer
Astrophysicist / Principal of Science Communication Consultants
Professor Stephen Sparks
NERC Research Professor / University of Bristol, UK
Professor Kurt Kotrschal
Zoological Institute / University of Vienna, Austria
Professor David Beerling
Professor of Palaeoclimatology / University of Sheffield, UK