Earth's future: Ice and snow, or Brazilian beaches?

Scientists have painted two very contrasting pictures of Earth's climate future - one in which it's always snowing and much of the land is covered in ice; and the other more like Australia.

And which we end up with might have nothing to do with our efforts to fight climate change, but something well out of our control - tectonic drift. 

Over millions of years, Earth's landmasses drift - sometimes crashing together, creating mountain ranges like the Himalayas and New Zealand's own Southern Alps; other times splitting apart, explaining how closely related species ended up an ocean apart from one another.

In the next 200 to 250 million years, it's expected all the continents will either crash together around the equator, creating the supercontinent dubbed 'Aurica', or all but Antarctica could end up gathered at the North Pole, creating 'Amasia'. 

Columbia University/Way et al 2020 Aurica Amasia
Photo credit: Columbia University/Way et al 2020

Scientists at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Columbia University's Earth Institute ran climate simulations on these two future scenarios, finding they would result in almost opposite climates for our distant descendants. 

Amasia - where Antarctica stays largely where it is, but the rest of the world's landmasses congregate at the North Pole - would not be particularly hospitable. 

"You get a lot more snowfall," said NASA physicist Michael Way. "You get ice sheets, and you get this very effective ice-albedo feedback, which tends to lower the temperature of the planet."

With all the land amassed at the poles, the ocean conveyor belt - which carries heat from the equator to the poles - is blocked by all the land. The lack of heat prompts ice to form year-round, which reflects heat back into space - a feedback loop which keeps it cold for as long as Amasia lasts.

There wouldn't be much land for growing crops either, with much of it covered in ice. Liquid water in the form of lakes and rivers would only be possible on about 60 percent of the land surface. 

Aurica would be a much nicer place to live. With all the land around the equator, it would bear "paradisiacal" beaches akin to those of Brazil, with perhaps a dry interior like Australia. 

"Whether or not much of the land would be farmable would depend on the distribution of lakes and what types of precipitation patterns it experiences," Columbia University's Sarah Fecht wrote, but would technically be feasible across 99.8 percent of the land area.

Aurica would be about 3C warmer than now - assuming the impacts of the emissions we've released in the past 150 years, and those still to come, aren't still being felt. The land would absorb sunlight, and there would be no polar ice caps to reflect it back into space. 

If you're struggling to get your head around just how far in the future this is, 250 million years ago the dinosaur age was just beginning. 

The study is the first to be done on a far-future supercontinent, and could help figure out if exoplanets are habitable or not.

"The new study, however, shows that it's important to consider land mass arrangements while estimating whether temperatures fall in the 'habitable' zone between freezing and boiling," wrote Fecht.

The research will be presented in detail on December 8 during an online meeting of the American Geophysical Union.