Back to the future

The earth warmed considerably some 55 million years ago. What does that tell us about our current climate dilemma?

  • Scott Wing digs for PETM plant fossils in Wyoming's Big Horn Basin. Previous page, the Big Red, a visual marker of 55.5 million-year-old fossils.

    Thomas Nash
  • Thomas Nash
  • Scott Wing and his crew trek up a ridge of vivid red paleosols in the Big Horn Basin.

    Thomas Nash
  • Doug Boyer examines a mammal fossil while a pumpjack works nearby.

  • Cataloging the day's finds in the vertebrate paleontologists' tent are, clockwise from bottom: Katie Slivensky, Sara Parent, Stephen Chester, Doug Boyer, Paul Morse.

    Thomas Nash
 

Page 5

Delicious aromas arise from the wok as Wing adds onions and garlic and ginger. Following their noses, the vertebrate fossil crew streams in. Soon we are all sitting in camp chairs, chowing down on rice and spicy curry. After dinner, when the dishes are all washed, dried and put away, Wing pulls out the battered acoustic guitar he bought for $8 years ago in a Worland pawn shop. He starts strumming it softly. Two more members of the group join in, one on a battery-powered keyboard, the other on a tinny guitar.

As the trio warbles out a medley of familiar songs, I contemplate the gossamer sash of the Milky Way as it flows across the nighttime sky. The universe is almost 14 billion years old. Some of the stars in our galaxy are 10 billion years old. The earth and the sun it circles are around 4.5 billion years old. Measured against such a long stretch of time, the duration of the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum seems absurdly insignificant. Compared to our own allotment of some few score years and ten, however, it looms a great deal larger. In little more than 150,000 years, ice ages came and went and started anew. In 150,000 years, modern humans diverged from their archaic ancestors and began to spread across the world.

For most of that time, our forebears lived in small, mobile clusters of hunter-gatherers. They began coalescing into settled agricultural communities perhaps 10,000 years ago. Their history as members of a technologically advanced industrial civilization is breathtakingly recent, powered into existence by the 18th century invention of efficient coal-fired steam engines. Who would have predicted that over the span of so few centuries, the clever, adaptable descendants of Eocene primates would become so numerous — and so dependent on carbon-based fuels — as to unbalance the planet?

Perhaps, many hundreds of thousands of years from now, paleontologists from some advanced civilization will uncover fossils from our world and marvel at the carbon shift recorded by the teeth of free-ranging cattle and sheep, and the leaves of garden shrubs and trees. Will those beings fathom the real wonder of our story, the fact that we had glimmers of what the future held and yet failed to use that knowledge? Or will our story, like one of Shakespeare's dark comedies, work its way to a happier ending?

 It's not that the PETM offers a precise road map to our future, Wing says, when I ask for his thoughts. "It's more that it's an example of the surprises that are waiting for us out there. How was it that Mark Twain put it? History does not repeat itself, but it sure does rhyme." 

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