The good news? Animals and plants we lost to extinction will probably be back in some form or another.
The bad news? We probably won’t be around to see it.
In fact, it’s going to take about as long for the planet’s biosphere to bounce back from a major extinction event — scientists suggest we’re living in one now — as it did for life to spring anew after the last planetary blackout.
Think around 10 million years, according to a new study published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.
But maybe the fact that humans won’t be around is part of the good news since scientists say we’re responsible for the mass extinction we’re on the precipice of now.
“From this study, it’s reasonable to infer that it’s going to take an extremely long time — millions of years — to recover from the extinction that we’re causing through climate change and other methods,” Andrew Fraass, paleobiologist and co-author of the new study, explains in a press release.
The Earth, as a whole, is one buoyant little ball, where hope really does spring eternal. True, we’ve probably seen the last of the Alagoas foliage-gleaner — the last confirmed sighting of the tree-dwelling bird was back in 2011.
But the Earth’s knack for respawning life remains a constant, ensuring a new kind of tree-dwelling something-something will fill those tiny shoes eventually.
After all, how do you think we got here?
Things probably looked pretty bleak to whoever was keeping score 65 million years ago, when a six-mile wide asteroid slammed into the planet, causing the mayhem that eventually wiped out the dinosaurs. During that mass die-off, dubbed the Cretaceous extinction, most plant life also disappeared.
For the study, paleobiologists from the University of Bristol and University of Texas looked at the recovery rate of planktic foraminifera — single-celled organisms that rain down continuously on the ocean floor. Those tiny organisms, a constant throughout Earth’s history, are instrumental in filling in the fossil record. In the wake of the Cretaceous extinction, planktic foraminifera declined from dozens of species to only a few.
Those species, the researchers noted, eventually returned to their previous numbers. But not before etching a sobering date on the calendar: 10 million years.
If the planet does experience another mass extinction, we’ll probably be facing a similarly long gap.
The thing is, the Cretaceous extinction, while dramatic, is actually a good point of comparison for the one that’s likely to come. Space-borne catastrophes and human-wrought holocausts tend to happen relatively quickly on the grand scale of things — and they inflict similar levels of destruction on the biosphere.
“That’s the one thing that basically happens faster than modern climate change, because it happens in one day, and then chunks of North America catch on fire and all this death and destruction happens,” Fraass tells Fast Company.
From a geological perspective, 10 million years may be the mere blink of an eye — but for humans, it will seem even longer than the wait for the next season of “Game of Thrones.”