Have you ever wondered about what would happen to the earth if humans were to suddenly vanish? Okay, so the notion of humans disappearing entirely instantaneously is impossible. More likely our demise will be long, drawn out and undoubtedly will involve dragging many other species into the dark with us, but through the power of thought experimentation we can make everybody simply vanish in one full sweep.
Would the Earth be able to wipe out all traces of humanity? And if so, how long would it take? How would our fellow life forms get on in our absence? Which would prosper and which would struggle? Is there a chance that one of our fellow animas someday travelling down the same evolutionary path as us? Below I will chart both the demise of the human world and the recovery of the natural world. Hopefully we’ll be able to get an idea of what an Earth without people would like far into the future.
Okay, it’s now time for the thought experiment to begin. Imagine a busy metropolis like New York; imagine the traffic, the people and the noise. Hold that thought! Poof! In a flash it’s all gone, in less than a second New York and other towns and cities around the world become devoid of human life. Welcome to earth after humans…
Crashing Down To Earth
A New World, A New Life
Welcome To Life After People
The First 48 Hours
With the instantaneous vanishing of the entire world’s population, millions of empty cars lose control, ploughing into other vehicles or swerving off the roads and motorways completely. Others plough into trees and buildings. In Trafalgar Square, an empty red bus crashes into Nelson’s column and catches fire. Within a matter of minutes, the roads and motorways are clogged with crumpled and burning vehicles. Those that have caught light will continue to burn until their fuel supplies expire. In addition to terrestrial vehicles, airplanes and helicopters, now entirely crewless start falling from the sky, some only minutes after taking to the air. To a human observer, it would like the apocalypse prophesised in the Christian bible.
Despite the fact that every single person has vanished, all of the systems and machines that made the modern world possible continue to work. High above the earth, man-made satellites continue to relentlessly orbit the mass of blue below. Despite the absence of their human masters, they continue to communicate with computers on the surface, which in turn transmit information right around the world. The information age goes on, until the electricity runs out of course.
An hour after the anthropological vanishing, more planes crash, this time as a result of catastrophic crash landings, which turn some of the greatest constructions ever built by any animal into huge balls of fire. Other planes meanwhile, continue to fly unabated due to their autopilot feature. However, they will suffer the same fate eventually when their fuel runs out. On railways around the world, unmanned trains derail and crash, causing more fires. Some expel dangerous chemicals into the atmosphere upon bursting into flames.
Two hours later, the power stations that ensured that all of our machines and utilities worked, begin to shut down through the expiration of their fuel reserves. Despite their obvious danger to the environment, coal-fired plants still generate more than half of all the electricity used today. In order to keep burning, the power plants need regular deliveries of coal via rail, but without the presence of humans, the trains have all crashed, meaning that there will never be another delivery. The fires go out. All across the world, buildings big and small, simple and grand become mere dark and empty shells.
Not all buildings though rely on traditional energy sources; some have already started to obtain their energy via alternative sources such as wind turbines. In the instant aftermath of the human vanishing, the turbines continue to run, but without anyone to operate the controls, the computer automatically detects a problem and shuts down the system.
The world is currently home to over 400 nuclear power plants, and of course the permanent loss of power reaches them. In response, the automated systems detect a problem and cease the reactions inside and shut off their reactors so as to avert a catastrophic meltdown. In the now abandoned chemical plants, stored gases which were previously kept in liquid form by temperature regulators start to heat up due to the loss of power. The storage tanks heats up until pressure release valves activate, sending a huge plume of toxic gases into the surrounding environment. Many thousands of tanks right across the world vent together, causing widespread death among the local wildlife.
With the passing of the first 24 hours, houses and apartments are still occupied by ravenous pets. Desperate dogs bark relentlessly from within former dwellings, while those previously confined to a life outside attempt to escape from their kennels. Other pets such as cats and birds start foraging and eating the food stored in their homes. Meanwhile, there are other animals faced with the plight of starvation in the absence of humans; most zoo animals will die inside their Perspex enclosures, however, those enclosed by electric fences benefit from the loss of power, with many escaping to explore a brand new world.
Along with chemical plants, liquefied natural gas plants have also began to vent large quantities of dangerous gases, which soon reach abandoned cars, many of which are still running. Soon enough, sparks ignite petrol tanks, resulting in a countless amount of powerful fires and dangerous explosions.
The End Of Big Ben
A Cruel Twist Of Fate
3-5 Days Hence
The famous Big Ben clock tower in London, recently renamed the Elizabeth tower needs to be rewound every three days or so, but without humans around, the clock simply stops, as do all other clocks that required manual winding. Gradually, the measure of time employed by humans for centuries ceases, seemingly bringing the final curtain down on human history. Meanwhile in houses and apartments across the world, it’s do or die for our former pets. They’ve already exhausted all of the food sources within their former homes, so they must break out and find more in the wider world. Sadly many will fail to escape their empty prisons and succumb, but for those that do, shops and supermarkets become goldmines for grumbling stomachs. Meanwhile the facilities at sewage treatment plants become the latest thing to fail in the post human world; the result is the release of human waste water into already polluted rivers and lakes.
The disappearance of humans sets the stage for a cruel twist of fate, regarding the animal that supplied the majority of our milk, the dairy cow. While around 90,000 are saved from the slaughterhouse each day, they’ll eventually succumb to dehydration as there is simply not enough water to match the quantities they needed to consume to produce milk for us. Meanwhile those zoo animals lucky enough to be able to escape captivity continue to do so en masse. Large animals like elephants roam the suburbs, trampling over once well-kept gardens and stripping shrubs of their vegetation. Predators like lions and tigers search high and low for food, but the city isn’t exactly the best place to hunt for food.
One of the few animals to benefit from the disappearance of humans in the immediate aftermath are migratory birds who can now travel without becoming confused and disorientated by electric city lights that once illuminated the night sky.
For man’s former best friend, things are becoming desperate. Dogs have already eaten most of the easily available food and now proceed to fight among themselves to ascertain dominance. The larger dogs form packs and quickly turn on smaller breeds. Within just a week, every single toy breed, such as poodles disappear from Earth. The packs meanwhile, roam the countryside, scavenging on any dead cattle that were unable to escape confinement.
Back at nuclear power plants, the equipment in the spent fuel buildings that adjoin the main power plants that helps to keep the temperature of the spent fuel rods constant begins to shut down, due to the fact that the back-up generators have run out of precious fossil fuels. As a result, the cooling pools that stops the spent fuel from overheating begins to boil. Radioactive steam vents into the atmosphere, due to the essential evaporation of the water. Now for the coup de grace, as the spent fuel sets fire to the building, causing a huge, but non-nuclear explosion. Even so, the explosion does unleash lethal radiation out into the environment. Moreover, the process is repeated a multitude of times all across the world, as each nuclear power plant succumbs to the same fate.
Planet Of The Rodents
10 Days Hence
A little over a week has now passed, and more and more starving and desperate dogs flee from urban and suburban areas to the countryside to look for food. Most of it comes in the form of recently deceased dairy cows that were simply unable to survive without the amount of food and water given to them by humans. However, not all cattle are dead, free range beef cattle, hardier than their dairy kin roam and thrive in grasslands and pastures right across the world, although their numbers are greatly reduced due to predation from recently escaped zoo predators like lions and tigers.
Meanwhile, another one of man’s domestic animals succumbs to extermination; the last chickens are killed and eaten, while closely related birds such as guinea fowl and peafowl continue to survive…just.
Radioactive clouds that were released in the aftermath of the explosions of the spent fuel buildings at nuclear power plants continue to spread around the world. Rainfall forces the radioactive particles down towards terra firma, causing widespread death among plants and small animals in affected zones in a similar way to the Chernobyl disaster. Bigger animals are forced to flee affected regions, but more so due to the lack of food rather than any sort of adverse effects of the radiation.
Small rodents swarm abandoned supermarkets, and experience a population boom thanks to the sheer abundance of food on offer. For a few short months, Earth will become ‘Planet of the Rodents’, as their numbers swell to numbers even beyond what we were used to. However, once the food runs out, they will have to once again take their chances in the wild. Their respective populations will plummet back to more natural levels, as predators like cats and foxes enjoy what only can be described as a rodent banquet. Other small animals such as stoats, weasels and hedgehogs start colonising abandoned human buildings, while in the US squirrels, raccoons and coyotes do likewise.
A New Life
A New Challenge
3-12 Months Hence
Three months after the extinction of humans, and the changes are coming thick and fast. The radiation expelled from blown out nuclear power plants has now completely disappeared, and in cities right around the world, both the air quality and overall visibility have improved dramatically. In the countryside, a pack of feral dogs on a desperate search for food come across a rather strange sight- an Asian elephant browsing casually on vegetation. Sheer desperation forces the dogs to attempt an attack, but in a world without humans, elephants are now safe from predators.
The passing of another three months sees the onset of winter in the Northern Hemisphere. Many zoo animals are naturally adapted to tropical climes, and thus either succumb to the cold or migrate to more southerly latitudes. Interestingly, one of the animals you’d think would thrive in a post human world, the cockroach is actually finding things rather difficult without us. In northern latitudes, their abundance was helped mostly by the fact that humans relied on artificial heating. With that now gone, billions and billions now die in cold and often frozen houses. The harsh conditions also force animals like badgers and squirrels to seek refuge in abandoned homes. Whilst there, they cause further damage to once highly prized furniture.
The passing of another few months sees the onset of spring, and a chance for vegetation to run wild, in once orderly gardens and parks. Spring also reveals the true effects of the nuclear power plant explosions, as the trees in the near vicinity fail to produce buds, but those outside of the affected regions produce buds as normal. The customary April showers help to wash away harmful radioactive particles, driving them deep underground away from plants and animals.
The warmer temperatures create a surge of floral growth, which help to remove the manmade CO2 from the atmosphere. However, as a testament to our industrial activities the process will take around 100,000 years to compete.
The spring also allows once hunted animals to breed without fear of guns. In Britain for example, the deer population of all species experiences an unprecedented boom, which also sees animals moving into former cities, already taking on the feel of a real jungle, rather than a concrete jungle.
Neglect At Home
Down To Earth
- The World Without Us - Alan Weisman
"The World Without Us" by Alan Weisman is a book that goes into great detail about how the Earth would recover from our activities fairly quickly in our absence.
The Next 100 Years
The next century sees more evidence of human civilisation disappear underneath a new wild landscape, with roads taking on a relatively degraded appearance within just a few short years. The once smooth tarmac is awash of cracks due to the effects of severe winter frosts. The tarmac itself is quickly disappearing underneath an ever increasing blanket of moss and other hardy plants such as dandelions and grasses, which grow in the cracks. New trees spring up in former suburban gardens, turning neighbourhoods into new fledgling forests.
Three decades after the disappearance of humans, and devastating solar winds have finally brought our artificial satellites back down to Earth in the form of beautiful shooting stars, unfortunately there are no creatures left on Earth to appreciate such a spectacle. Some of the satellite pieces survive penetration into the atmosphere and crash into the ground, starting fires in the process. Meanwhile, our former homes are slowly collapsing into the fledgling forests; crumbling roofs allow seeds to blow in, which quickly germinate into a variety of different plants, including trees.
Coastal cities such as Miami, Florida have over the years been scoured by countless numbers of hurricanes, so much so that virtually all of their buildings have been swept away in a little over three decades. In the ocean itself, the carcasses of long sunken ships provide valuable foundations for new coral reefs.
In cities containing high rise glass panelled buildings, those very panels now commence crashing down onto the weed covered streets below. The now exposed interior allows birds of prey to build their nests in safety and hunt rodents without competition from other predators.
Sixty years after the extinction of humans, and virtually all domestic dog breeds are gone, as natural selection morphs our once faithful companions into something more like their wild ancestors, wolves. Additionally, the descendants of the once suppressed wild wolf population expands into countries where they were once exterminated like Germany, France and even Britain via the intact Channel Tunnel. The wolves quickly make contact with feral dogs, interbreed with them and complete the transformation of man’s best friend into wild animals virtually indistinguishable from wolves.
In the sea meanwhile, sea life has now completely recovered from centuries of overfishing and has now returned to levels not seen since before the dawn of the industrial age. Back on land, virtually all cars have crumbled back to the minerals they once were.
Earth: 150-300 Years After Us
Earth: 500-1000 Years After Us
Savaged By Sand
Towards The First 1000 Years
Around 150 years after the disappearance of humans and winters in the Northern Hemisphere are now on average two to three degrees colder than the average we experienced. In Britain, the rotting carcasses of ships and bridges dam the River Thames, flooding what remains of London, transforming the city back into the swamp that greeted Julius Caesar and his Roman legions.
In the US, Imperial Valley, which was once America’s bread basket has now reverted back to its natural form, a sandy, arid desert. The dry desert winds have preserved Las Vegas buildings, although now they are nothing more than a sanctuary for vultures and lizards.
On the Colorado River, all of the dams have long since succumbed to relentless water pressure. The one exception however, is the imposing Hoover Dam, but the water level has already risen enough that it cascades over the solid concrete walls. For the first time in three centuries, the Colorado River actually manages to reach the Sea of Cortes as a raging flood rather than a trickle. In time, the Colorado will form a fertile delta, home to vast array of animal life.
In the oceans, fish such as tuna are once again growing to six feet in length; in the time of humans intense overfishing of bigger specimens, forced natural selection to select for smaller sizes to prevent extinction, a similar phenomenon was observed in heavily persecuted mammals such as tigers and elephants. Meanwhile, whales, once one of the most highly prized of all marine mammals have finally recovered from centuries of overhunting. Moreover, the disappearance of noisy and irritating naval alarms ensures that their mating calls can be once again picked up by other whales from more than 2000 miles away.
250 years after our extinction and the relentless forces of nature continue to pull down our once splendid civilisation. In Egypt, two centuries of neglect and wind erosion have reduced the once mighty Great Sphinx to the state it was when discovered by Napoleon Bonaparte at the end of the 18th century.
In what was once Paris, the upper half of the Eiffel Tower finally collapses into the now sprawling marsh that sits astride the Seine. In and around the bottom half are dozens of feral pigs foraging through the leaf litter, these in turn are hunted by feral dogs, wolves and bears, which re-colonised France during the first century of human absence.
In the eastern US, another once mighty monument, the Statue of Liberty is likewise surrounded by ever thickening deciduous forest; in fact, these forests now cover much of the eastern half of North America and are once again awash with mighty oak trees that stretch 90 feet into the sky. Underneath, the humus, though are relics of human civilisation; occasionally torrential rain exposes these artefacts to the outside world, among them are concrete beams, various bits of plastics, mobile phones and stainless steel objects, including taps and cutlery.
On the Great Plains, bison once again roam freely and number tens of millions, but this time they have competition from cattle and horses, elephants and rhinos, these in turn are hunted by wolves, bears, lions, tigers and other big cats. Indeed, albeit with a few slight differences, the Great Plains have returned to the state it was at the end of the last Ice Age, North America is once again a land of megafauna, a super Serengeti.
Humans On The Moon
Life After People: The Far Future
The Far Future
More than a millennium after the disappearance of humans and virtually all evidence of our existence has gone; the Eiffel Tower has now completely disappeared, while the Statue of Liberty is represented only by its concrete pedestal, which is now so thickly covered in vegetation, it now seemingly looks like a small mountain. In the Northern Hemisphere, the forests have recovered to the extent they were before the invention of agriculture some 10,000 years ago. If one looks close enough there are still a few tell-tale signs of humans, in the form of bits of plastic, bronze, which in some cases still carries the artwork of humans. The Rocky Mountains still showcase the five presidents, albeit their once perfect faces are now badly scarred by erosion.
Moving forward another 25,000 years and the Earth has entered the next Ice Age; the glaciers have once again expanded southwards, scraping large parts of the Northern Hemisphere totally clean, including once iconic cities such as New York and London. Could there possibly be any evidence left of our existence? Well, ironically given all the effort we put into achieving immortality through monuments, the only evidence of us that will last for millions of years on the Earth is our fossilised bones. In places such as what was once New Orleans, human fossils are, after resting for 10 million years now a mile and a half underground. In the time that has passed, something quite incredible has happened, pressure and heat have transformed our remains into what was once our most prized commodity oil. Fate it seems is not without a sense of irony.
Amazingly the only evidence of humanity that will last almost indefinitely isn’t even located on Earth. On the moon, evidence left behind by the various lunar exploration missions will survive virtually intact far into the geological future. As the moon does not possess any real atmosphere and thus any weather, the normal forces of erosion are entirely absent. Who knows, perhaps one day, if another species evolves human like sentience, they’ll observe those lunar artefacts in wonder and speculate as to their origins.
© 2013 James Kenny