Our theme for the month of October is “This Day in History.”
On this day(ish) in history—the geological, biological, pre-human kind—everything was cold, dark, dirty, dying.
Six(ish) months after the six-mile-wide Chicxulub asteroid, long thrown from its own historic position in the outer main asteroid belt, tumbled to its demise at the edge of what we now call the Yucatán Peninsula, Earth was still writhing in the aftermath.
On a day something like October 9th, 66 million(ish) years ago, a blanket of soot clouded every sky, spilled over every horizon. Through the grimy mist, remnants of burnt vegetation crept like scars across the ground. Carcasses still littered the land: the massive corpses of Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops, permanently grounded Pterosaurs, decaying mammals who were too large to find cover. Underwater, phytoplankton withered without nourishment from the sun. Creatures that relied on phytoplankton for food died, as did the creatures that ate them, as did the creatures that—and so on.
As the Earth sweltered in the belly of what we came to call the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event, the fifth of the “Big Five”(ish) mass extinctions in Earth’s pre-human history, prospects for life seemed bleak. Land, sea, and sky were unrecognizable. The previous millennia of decline, of sulfur belched from the Deccan Traps and marine regression and food chain collapse, still would not have prepared an observer for Chicxulub’s devastation.
We’re in the midst of another period perhaps comparable to the years and decades before Chicxulub. This sixth(ish) mass death we call the Holocene extinction, that is, the accelerated loss of species, habitats, and biodiversity over the past century or so. Much of this loss is attributed to ecocide: human-driven, human-celebrated, human-accommodating extermination.
On this day(ish) in the future, we’ll have more evidence of this extinction. There may no longer be Javan rhinos and mountain gorillas. Tanks and boots and airdropped explosives will have destroyed greater and greater swaths of once-fertile, once-biodiverse, once-inhabited land. Fields may yield fewer and fewer crops, leaving us without cocoa and rice and bananas. More rivers and waterways may be compromised by oil, plastics, acids, and other pollutants.
Today(ish), Antarctic sea ice growth has hit a record low. We’re coming down from the hottest summer recorded since 1880, when average daily global sea surface temperatures peaked. The average global temperature has surpassed pre-industrial levels by more than 1.5°C on a record number of days this year. In the six years leading to today, over 43 million children have been displaced by storms, fires, and floods.
The next Chicxulub(ish) event may not rain down from the heavens. It may not burst forth from the Earth. It may be our own doing—a sudden nuclear winter or a slow, horror-wrought descent into climate catastrophe fueled by carelessness and corporate greed.
When another generation looks back at October 9th, 2023, they may see the era of a turning point. More likely, it seems, they’ll see how stable(ish) things used to be.