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Monday, December 5, 2022
Dr. Brown: What the future holds: Part 1

Dr. William Brown

Special to The Lake Report

Nothing with which we are familiar will remain the same; not anyone we know, not our homes, streets, rivers, lakes or coastlines. Not those charming small cottages, not those mega-homes – they’re all slated to go. None will survive the onslaught of nature’s continued creative destruction.

Shifts in tectonic plates, the ebb and flow of glaciers, erosion and repeated shifts in climate played over nature’s time scales of thousands, millions and billions of years will surely erase everything we’re familiar with except the skies above and newly sculpted lands and waters below and even those too will pass.

And that holds true for all the great creations of human imagination, engineering and the arts. It’s hard to see how the Sistine chapel, the pyramids and any human-made marvels in the world will survive 100,000 years, never mind a million years, given that most works of art need continued coddling and restoration within hundreds, not thousands of years.

In the face of such powerful natural forces, whole continents, mountain ranges, oceans and seas and the very shape of the land on which our descendants might live, will change beyond our recognition.

I’m very aware of this living as I do in Niagara-on-the-Lake, because the Great Lakes from Lake Superior to Lake Ontario and the lands beneath and surrounding those lakes were born in the wake of the last ice age 10,000 to 20,000 years ago.

That’s not so long ago when we remember that our paleolithic ancestors in Europe created much of that cave art, and as it turns out in Indonesia as well, 40,000 years ago for modern humans and 20,000 to 60,000 years earlier for Neanderthals. At least art seems to last longer in caves, although even here the slow drip of water and chemical action takes its toll.

From the perspective of our daily lives, what surrounds us looks so familiar and unchanging. That’s an illusion. For those of us who are a little older and remember times and places a few decades ago, there’s a growing awareness of change on the march, of changes in our culture and others surrounding us, and attitudes, some of which may be welcome, but many of which may be unsettling and worrying.

On an altogether longer time scale, Earth is on target to be stripped of all its life-sustaining water and baked by an expanding and warming sun, to become uninhabitable well before the sun engulfs the Earth and perhaps Mars, two to three billion years from now. After that, the sun will pack it in, bereft of fuel, and collapse into a very much smaller, denser, and colder, dead star.

If that’s not enough apocalyptic drama in our corner of the Milky Way, our nearest galaxy, Andromeda, is on track to merge with our Milky Way about four billion years from now, hopefully with few, if any collisions, but no guarantees on that score. So, change is on the way on almost any time scale.

Given that most species, especially more complex primates like us, have relatively short shelf-lives of the order of a few hundred thousand years, or perhaps 2 million years at best, it’s hard to imagine that any species like homo sapiens will be around much longer than a few hundred thousand years from now – nothing like the time before Earth bakes or the sun collapses.

Long before the latter end-times we humans will likely morph into yet other homo species or perhaps a new genus, or as with so many species before us, become extinct – the end of the line.

Dr. William Brown is a professor of neurology at McMaster University and co-founder of the Infohealth series held on the second Wednesday of each month at the Niagara-on-the-Lake Public Library.