SCIENTISTS are probing a climate event that occurred 56 million years ago, when the earth warmed high above today’s temperatures, for signs of an extinct civilisation that pre-dates mankind.
What sounds like a wild conspiracy theory could hold the key to finding alien life and help us measure our impact on our planet, writes Professor Adam Frank of the University of Rochester in The Atlantic.
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Frank has teamed up with climatologist Gavin Schmidt, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, to co-author a recently published paper entitled: The Silurian Hypothesis: Would it be possible to detect an industrial civilization in the geological record?
The study revolves around the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), a warming period around 56 million years ago when global temperatures were around 8-degrees celsius higher than today.
And Whovians may have noticed the paper’s hat tip to the Sirulian reptilian race from Doctor Who.
Does that mean lizard men were roaming the earth long before humans? Um, probably not.
As a guide for what we might expect from ancient inhabitants, the two scientists looked at what our own civilisation may leave behind on Earth as signs of our existence – such as plastics in the ocean, evidence of fertiliser use, and (above all) evidence of fossil fuel use.
There could have been a civilisation on Earth that pre-dates our own, claim scientists
But don’t go expecting to stumble upon any massive structures, they claim, because there’s no way they would have remained preserved through tens of millions of years of geological activity.
Frank writes: “There is a conundrum here. If an earlier species’s industrial activity is short-lived, we might not be able to easily see it.
“The PETM’s spikes mostly show us the Earth’s timescales for responding to whatever caused it, not necessarily the timescale of the cause.
“So it might take both dedicated and novel detection methods to find evidence of a truly short-lived event in ancient sediments. In other words, if you’re not explicitly looking for it, you might not see it.”
The same logic applies to the search for alien life.
In this way, the new paper relates this “Sirulian hypothesis” for precursors to human civilisation on Earth to the Drake equation – a probabilistic approach to estimating the amount of intelligent extra-terrestrial life in the Milky Way – developed by astronomer Frank Drake.
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One of the equation’s key variables is the length of time such an alien race can broadcast detectable signals across the galaxy for others to pick up.
A possible reason why we haven’t achieved contact with an alien species is that this “length of time” quantity may be extremely short.
Take humans as as example – we’ve been kicking about for around 12,000 years but have only been able to send radio signals into space for about a century.
But it could also indicate that a technologically-advanced alien race capable of broadcasting its existence has a very short life span.
And our wasteful society has a lot to learn from that foreboding equation, claims Schmidt.
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“It might be the detectable period of a civilization is much shorter than its actual longevity, because you can’t last a long time doing the kinds of stuff that we’ve been doing,” Schmidt told Motherboard.
“You either stop, because you’ve messed it all up, or you learn not to do it. Either way, the burst of activity, wastefulness, and massive footprints is actually a very short amount of time.”
“Maybe it’s happened a billion times in the universe,” he added, “but if it only lasted 200 years every time, then you’d never see it.”