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NASA Time-lapse Depicts Earth Losing Its Oceans

Now that we have strong evidence for the existence of liquid water on Mars, it’s fun to speculate on what the Red Planet would look like if it were ever to be filled with expansive oceans like our own. Likewise, it’s fun to imagine what Earth would look like if it were ever to be desiccated to the same level of dryness as Mars—like it is in this fascinating little time-lapse video that turns our green and blue marble into a dusty, Tatooine-ish version of itself.

Although the odds of there being a Mad Max-ification of Earth are essentially nil—except for when the Sun becomes a red giant in approximately five billion years, at which point those odds shoot right up to 100 percent—this video, which was originally created by NASA physicist and animator, Horace Mitchel, back in 2008, is still a pretty stunning visualization of an interesting thought experiment. In the clip (via Futurism), Earth’s oceans are slowly depleted, from their current levels until every last drop of water is sucked away from the bottom of the 36,201-foot-deep Mariana Trench.

Dr. James O’Donoghue, a Japan-based planetary scientist, made this version of Mitchel’s visualization toward the end of 2019, updating the original 2008 version with higher-resolution images (definitely make sure to watch the clip in 4K), different timing, and the addition of a readout showing the depth to which water has been removed from the oceans at any given moment in the drainage process. Incidentally, this remixed clip is only one of O’Donoghue’s many science-focused visualizations that have a good shot at changing the way you see Earth and the other celestial bodies in our solar system.

NASA Time-lapse Shows Earth Lose Its Oceans_1

Horace Mitchell (NASA/GSFC) / Dr James O’Donoghue

As NASA points out in the original post showing off Mitchel’s animation, three fifths of Earth’s surface is made up of an “ocean floor… as rich in detail as the land surface with which we are familiar.” More and more of this hidden, detailed surface is revealed as more and more water is drained in the visualization, with the continental shelves appearing almost immediately. After most of the continental shelves emerge after about 140 meters worth of water has been removed, mid-ocean ridges begin to become apparent at somewhere between the removal of 2,000 and 3,000 meters of water (or roughly 6,500 to 10,000 feet). By 6,000 meters (about 20,000 feet), almost all of the water has been removed, save for the deepest crevasses.

O’Donoghue told Science Alert that he enjoys this animation because it not only gives people a sense of what Earth would be like without its oceans, but also because it helps them to visualize the kind of planet their ancestors inhabited thousands of years ago—during a time when enough water was locked up in polar ice to allow for people to use intercontinental land bridges now covered by oceans. Hopefully we’ll see plentiful oceans on Mars before our own descendants see those bridges again.

What do you think about this visualization of Earth being completely drained of its oceans? Is it making you look at Earth, or Mars, in a new light? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!

Images: Horace Mitchell (NASA/GSFC) / Dr James O’Donoghue