Ending the Ice Ages

By Razib Khan | February 23, 2012 1:58 am

We Are All Panamanians:

When the Isthmus of Panama rose from the sea, it may have changed the climate of Africa–and encouraged the evolution of humans.

The emergence of the Isthmus of Panama has been credited with many milestones in Earth’s history. When it rose from the sea some 3 million years ago, the isthmus provided a bridge for the migration of animals between North and South America, forever changing the fauna of both continents. It also blocked a current that once flowed west from Africa to Asia, diverting it northward to strengthen the Gulf Stream. Now Steven Stanley, a paleobiologist at Johns Hopkins, says that that change in currents may be behind yet another major event: the evolution of humans. When the isthmus rearranged the ocean, he says, it triggered a series of ice ages that in turn had a crucial impact on the evolution of hominids in Africa.

Question: do we have enough nukes to re-open the isthmus?


Comments (10)

  1. I’d rather not find out if we have enough nukes to reopen the isthmus…But it would be interesting.

  2. Brett

    We easily have enough. The Soviets created Lake Chagan (408 meters in diameter, 100 meters deep) using only a single 140 kiloton device. The Isthmus of Panama is about 60 kilometers across at the narrowest, so it wouldn’t be too difficult to blast an artificial waterway through it (especially if you used larger weapons buried into the ground).

    More seriously, I’ve read arguments for creating a waterway there along the lines of it stabilizing the world climate (while warming it up as well).

  3. ackbark

    But warming the Earth is clearly what humans are here for, an ocean current is so last geological era.

  4. Ghoghogol

    FYI his book is over 16 years old. What’s the scientific community’s response to his hypothesis since then…

  5. Bob

    Back in the Eisenhower administration – the 1950s – there was a proposed program called “Atoms for Peace”. One of its elements was to blast a sea level canal across, I believe, Nicaragua with atomic bombs, so there must have been enough in the inventory, or at least feasible, to make it happen. There were some other clever proposed projects, too.

    Never did see the light of day, alas.

  6. Amused

    Nuke the isthmus ? Is this a last ditch attempt to slow immigration? Besides, the world will need a cooling period after battling a virus called mankind.

  7. Paul Ó Duḃṫaiġ

    All this talk of using Nukes Reminds me of “Operation Plowshare”

    One of the proposals been to build a new sealevel canal through Nicaragua, as wiki says which was nicknamed “Pan-Atomic Canal”

  8. jb

    I was kind of surprised when I first discovered that the ice ages we are familiar with only go back to the beginning of the Pleistocene, about 2.5 million years ago. This is really very recent! According to Wikipedia: There have been at least five major ice ages in the Earth’s past. Outside these ages, the Earth seems to have been ice-free even in high latitudes. Five major ice ages in a 4.6 billion year history isn’t a lot, so I think the fact that we are in the middle of one of the five right now really ought to attract more attention than it does.

    Especially in light of the Snowball Earth hypothesis! If you think about it, it seems obvious that an ice age must entail the risk of runaway feedback, where more and more ice reflects back more and more solar radiation which results in more and more ice. So, has anyone seriously considered the possibility that, as a result perhaps of the rise of the Isthmus of Panama, the world might actually be heading into another Snowball Earth episode, resulting in the extinction of all complex life that doesn’t make a living off of hydrothermal vents? If ice ages had happened hundreds of times in Earth’s history we could shrug our shoulders at yet another one. But given how rare they are, how can we dismiss the possibility that number five could edge past the tipping point?

    The punch line? Wouldn’t it be ironic if someone actually made the calculation, and determined that anthropogenic global warming was in fact the only thing standing between the world and ultimate icy doom?!? 🙂

  9. Bob Knaus

    No need for nukes. A sea level canal has been possible across Nicaraugua for more than a century, using current-at-the-time technologies. America’s choice to make the canal in Panama had more to do with poliitics than technology.

    Recently, Panama (which has owned the Canal outright for more than a decade) completed a $5 billion project to widen the Canal and forestall any strategic threats from Nicaragua to construct a competing sea-level canal.

    $5 billion? That’s chump change, compared to the costs of a nuclear-excavated canal!

    If that’s all it takes to keep the competition at bay… you will not see nukescavation for a long time 🙂


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com


See More


RSS Razib’s Pinboard

Edifying books

Collapse bottom bar