“And when the seasons are less extreme,” Barnes said, “so when the summers are cooler and the winters are warmer, there’s more snow and less melted off, and that’s what causes the glaciers to form and the ice ages. So even that one degree tilt causes these huge shifts in the earth’s climate, into glaciated and non-glaciated states."
And without the moon’s stabilizing gravitational influence, the earth’s axial plane would vary by 10 degrees, Barnes said, which would have huge consequences for life on earth.
Ice ages could potentially be 10 times as bad as they have been. With climate shifts that dramatic, glaciers would cover the entire planet except for possibly a small band at the equator. Whatever life did exist would exist in a concentrated band at the equator.
But that’s just the beginning of the many ways that the moon stabilizes the earth’s climate. Without the moon, the earth’s days would be only six to eight hours long, explains Neil Comins in his book, "What if the Moon Didn't Exist?"
The moon was created about 4.5 billion years ago when a small planet traveling through space collided with the earth at 25,000 miles per hour. The collision sprayed more than 5 billion cubic miles of the earth’s outer layers into space. This material eventually gravitated into the moon.
As mentioned above, the earth would still have tides caused by the sun, but they’d be about a third the size as they are today. And the moon’s larger tides, over millions of years, have slowed down the earth’s rotation, says Comins.
“The motion of the water pushing against the continent and the friction generated by that water rubbing against the ocean bottom would both act to slow down the earth’s rotation,” he wrote.
Scientists estimate that without the tides, the earth would spin about three to four times faster than it does. And that would have big implications on its life forms. First, winds on earth would be so fast and powerful that few things could grow.
Winds are generated by a planet’s rotation and the cooling and heating of its air. For example, Comins said, “Jupiter and Saturn have 10-hour days. They rotate so rapidly that the friction between their surfaces and atmospheres pulls the air into narrow, streaming belts of wind.” They have winds up to 300 miles an hour. They have hurricanes that last for years and even centuries. Earth, without the stabilizing effects of its moon, would be the same. If plants did exist, they would be short, deeply rooted and ground-hugging.
And any land animals that existed on such a planet would be all short, squat and stout. Birds and any flying insects would be impossible.
If you have a science subject you'd like Steven Law to explore in a future article, send him your idea at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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