Imagine that all the people on Earth – all 6.5 billion of us and counting – could be spirited away tomorrow, transported to a re-education camp in a far-off galaxy. (Let’s not invoke the mother of all plagues to wipe us out, if only to avoid complications from all the corpses). Left once more to its own devices, Nature would begin to reclaim the planet, as fields and pastures reverted to prairies and forest, the air and water cleansed themselves of pollutants, and roads and cities crumbled back to dust.
“The sad truth is, once the humans get out of the picture, the outlook starts to get a lot better,” says John Orrock, a conservation biologist at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis in Santa Barbara, California. But would the footprint of humanity ever fade away completely, or have we so altered the Earth that even a million years from now a visitor would know that an industrial society once ruled the planet?
[…] The best illustration of this is the city of Pripyat near Chernobyl in Ukraine, which was abandoned after the nuclear disaster 20 years ago and remains deserted. “From a distance, you would still believe that Pripyat is a living city, but the buildings are slowly decaying,” says Ronald Chesser, an environmental biologist at Texas Tech University in Lubbock who has worked extensively in the exclusion zone around Chernobyl. “The most pervasive thing you see are plants whose root systems get into the concrete and behind the bricks and into doorframes and so forth, and are rapidly breaking up the structure. You wouldn’t think, as you walk around your house every day, that we have a big impact on keeping that from happening, but clearly we do. It’s really sobering to see how the plant community invades every nook and cranny of a city.”
The area around Chernobyl has revealed just how fast nature can bounce back. “I really expected to see a nuclear desert there,” says Chesser. “I was quite surprised. When you enter into the exclusion zone, it’s a very thriving ecosystem.”
The first few years after people evacuated the zone, rats and house mice flourished, and packs of feral dogs roamed the area despite efforts to exterminate them. But the heyday of these vermin proved to be short-lived, and already the native fauna has begun to take over. Wild boar are 10 to 15 times as common within the Chernobyl exclusion zone as outside it, and big predators are making a spectacular comeback. “I’ve never seen a wolf in the Ukraine outside the exclusion zone. I’ve seen many of them inside,” says Chesser.
[…] But these will be flimsy souvenirs, almost pathetic reminders of a civilisation that once thought itself the pinnacle of achievement. Within a few million years, erosion and possibly another ice age or two will have obliterated most of even these faint traces. If another intelligent species ever evolves on the Earth – and that is by no means certain, given how long life flourished before we came along – it may well have no inkling that we were ever here save for a few peculiar fossils and ossified relics. The humbling – and perversely comforting – reality is that the Earth will forget us remarkably quickly.
Here’s a nifty timeline illustrating a lot fo what is discussed at length in the article. It’s humbling to think that, despite all the polution, art and Pyramids we’ve wraught over the last ten thousand years, most of it would disapear in just a few decades, the rest gone within a thousand years. Surely, we would all be King Ozymandias.
Hat tip to Warren Ellis