Ever wonder what the earth looked like 4.5 billion years ago when the planet first formed, a day was only 17.5 hours long, and the atmosphere was 11 percent carbon dioxide? (Answer: a Mordoresque globe of blackness and roiling lava.)
Or maybe the Neo-Proterozoic ice age of more recent history (i.e., 750 million years ago) is more your style. At that point, the planet resembled a gob stopper with all the color sucked off.
Or maybe, you’d be interested to know that in the early Carboniferous Period, modern-day L.A. was east of New York, Moscow was just south of Paris, and Rio de Janeiro was due west from Washington, D.C.
All of this info is available—and viewable—on EarthViewer, a new app from the science education team at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). The app is a fusion of biology and earth science or "deep earth history," according to Dr. Dennis Liu, a geneticist who lead the project. "Earth scientists and biologists don’t have anything against each other," Liu says. "But they don’t interact enough. The planet is missing from the study of biology."
EarthViewer provides new context for the how, where, and when of life’s development on earth. For example, you might read about the discovery of important fossils in Antarctica and wonder how they ended up in such a severe, barren climate. "If you use the app to roll backwards, you realize that part of Antarctica was in the tropics and under water," Liu says. "People are easily confused because the time scales are so vast." But everyone understands a globe.
"Deep earth history" has a fitting psychedelic ring. It’s equally dizzying and wowing to spin a digital globe with your finger and observe the planet’s physical and biological evolution over billions of years. The ease with which you can zoom in and out, pinpoint where massive craters created bodies of water, and trace the congealing and disjoining of the continents all makes you feel a little bit like you’re floating over the earth, watching someone fast forward and rewind the past.
The map also includes eight data sets, including temperature, day length, luminosity, and atmospheric makeup, all of which can be overlaid on the globe at any point in the earth’s history. In case you need to brush up on your biology, you can read basic lessons about plate tectonics, oxygenation, mass extinctions, and the origins of life. Finally, there is a visual animation of the earth’s warming over the last hundred years. It is one of EarthViewer’s most stunning features. Stunning and frightening.
"You can rotate the globe and look down at the pole and see the relative temperature change over time," says Liu. "It’s so striking on the northern latitudes—exactly the place we have to worry about." The next few words out of Liu’s mouth include "suffering" and "catastrophe." But the app itself isn’t hyper-critical. It doesn’t have an opinion or a tone. It’s pure science. A visual story of what is and was.
In future versions, the EarthViewer team is hoping to include a data set that tracks changes in the ozone layer. They’re also hoping to include the asteroid crater that created the Chesapeake Bay. (HHMI is in Chevy Chase, Maryland, not far from the Bay.) They’re also hoping to add more recent glaciations (that is, over the last 200 thousand years) and more specific detail about the very early earth. Still, there’s more than enough to explore in EarthViewer, 1.0. The only thing that’s really missing from this mesmerizing digital journey through planetary time is a soundtrack. I’d suggest The Grateful Dead’s Truckin’. What a long, strange trip it’s been.