At first glance, Ancient Earth Globe (dinosaurpictures.org/ancient-earth) seems like a nerdy little trick. Earth, our blue-green marble, is suspended peacefully in space on screen. Alongside, a drop-down menu holds 25 dates that go back between 20 million and 750 million years. There’s a search bar, to help locate modern-day cities. Select a city and a date, and you can see what the place might have looked like at various points in Earth’s past. Fun.
But play around with the tool for a little while. Enter three or four locations — your hometown, the furthest you’ve travelled, your dream destination, perhaps — and the tech starts to work its magic. You learn, for instance, that the spot we now call Delhi was all sea 750 million years ago. Mumbai, on the other hand, was lush but landlocked. Spin the globe around and Earth itself looks like an alien planet in this Cryogenian Period, the greatest ice age. Ancient mountain ranges and shorelines look nothing like they do today. There are glaciers across the surface of the planet.
Take shortcuts and simply pick landmark moments — the first vertebrates, a look at the supercontinent Pangea, when land plants emerged or some primates evolved into hominids. Mumbai and Delhi would have been coastal regions when the first dinosaurs appeared 220 million years ago. By the time they died out 66 million years ago, the Indian landmass had broken away from Africa and was on course for its crash into Asia.
It’s a humbling look at pre-history. You learn that your city has possibly roamed more of the Earth than you have. You’re reminded that humans, who have wrought so much damage on the planet, are disposable.
The site was set up in 2018 by Ian Webster, an American computer engineer and one-time travel-search analyst for Google. He used data from GPlates, an open-source repository of geoscience information, and combined it with maps developed by geologist and palaeo-geographer Christopher Scotese for his 30-year Paleomap Project. The Ancient Earth maps, Scotese’s website says, help “illustrate the plate tectonic development of the ocean basins and continents, as well as the changing distribution of land and sea during the past 1100 million years”. Webster updates the maps as more research becomes available.
The globe won’t let you fast-forward into the future, but geologists have predicted a northward shift for landmasses if present-day plate motions continue. Scotese’s site has a static map showing what Earth will look like 50 million years from now. The Atlantic will widen; Africa will collide with Europe, enclosing the Mediterranean; Australia will collide with South-East Asia; California will slide northward up the coast to Alaska. Mumbai and Delhi stay largely where they are today, but there’s no way to know if rising oceans will have swallowed them up by then.
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