Naturhistorisches Museum Basel, Replica of the Letter to the Future and the stone of the Okjökull glacier. Photo/foto: TES.

Okjökull Letter to the Future

Millions of years ago, a large part of the European continent was underwater. In the last ice age, only 15 000 – 10 000 years ago, the same continent was under a thick layer of ice. The last ‘small’ European ice age was between 1430 and the second half of the nineteenth century. It was on average 1-2 degrees colder then than it is today. In Roman times, Egypt and Syria were fertile agricultural areas, and it was much wetter and colder in this region.

In other words, climate change is not a human creation but is also part of nature, as humankind is a creation of the same nature and ecosystem. It does not alter the fact that the presence of humanity is responsible for (too) rapid and significant changes in the ecosystem, flora and fauna on planet earth.

The explosive population growth from around half a billion people in 1800 to more than seven billion in 2020, (industrial) pollution, deforestation of continents (starting in Europe in the 17th-20th century), the cultivation of land for (gigantic) cities, agriculture, golf courses, ports, airports, etc., mobility and the use of natural resources have a huge impact on ecosystems. Humankind is indeed disruptive. That is a fact.

On the other hand, there have always been natural predecessors, such as all-powerful dinosaurs, meteorite impacts, volcanic eruptions or the climate-changes as mentioned above. Planet Earth will orbit the sun for millions of years to come, whether it is a few degrees warmer or colder, with or without glaciers.

Humankind is not only disruptive, however. People are also able to influence development positively. And fortunately, they do so, not only for the sake of nature, ecosystems, flora and fauna but also to improve the quality of life for humans.

The Rhine near Basel is an example. Who could have imagined swimming in this dead river forty years ago?  Nowadays, man and fish are happily swimming around again. The Salmon is not yet able to do so, but that is due to other (French) obstacles.

For centuries, the mobility of people and goods has led to massive immigration and emigration of animals, plants, bacteria and viruses. Rabbits in Australia, the potato in Europe, but also the flu in South America, syphilis, Spanish flu or Corona are just a few examples. Around eight hundred immigrated species populate Switzerland nowadays, compared to a few hundred years ago.

CO2 emissions and the (proven) relation with global warming is just one of the facets that will be discussed in the new exhibition (Earth at its Limits) in the beautiful Historical Nature Museum (Naturhistorisches Museum) of Basel (see under agenda).

The show is also a (late) tribute to the American scientist Eunice Newton Foote (1818-1888).  She discovered the relation between CO2 and global warming already in 1856. But she was a woman, and John Tyndall (1820-1893) got the honour a few years later.

Anyone walking in Graubünden, regions in Basel-Landschaft or skiing in the Alps, has the idea that the human ‘footprint’ is not that omnipresent. However, this exhibition shows the evolution of the last hundred years in the decline of glaciers, the use of land, pollution, mobility and the enormous consumption of freshwater.

The Letter to the Future (dated August 2019) and the glacier stone commemorating the disappearance of the Okjökull glacier in Iceland illustrate this development.

There is no place for pessimism, activism or doom and gloom in this informative and well-documented exhibition. Nor does it make sense, because humanity is there and no one wants to go back to the dentist’s chair of the 1930s or live without a computer, plastic, chemistry, batteries, or modern means of transport.

The question is: how do we deal with the presence of so many people, and how do we organise the earth for eight or nine billion people in the near future?

The entrance of this show offers perhaps the quietest natural environment in Basel: five minutes in and listening to nature without human sounds in the heart of the city on the Münster. It is recommended for every hiker and nature lover.