Ancient Earth shows Brooklyn, New York, today (left) and during the Devonian Period around 400 million years ago (right), when the first land animals and insects began to develop. (screenshots Valentina Di Liscia/Hyperallergic)

Confined, as we are, to human time, something like the formation of land masses over millions of years on planet Earth can be frustratingly abstract. Luckily, a new tool developed by engineer Ian Webster — who also happens to be the mind behind the Internet’s largest dinosaur database — allows users to scroll through geologic time, using their own location as a pinpoint to orient themselves in the shifting land masses.

Call up Ancient Earth, and once you type in a place (like a neighborhood, city, or town), you can jump through tens of millions of years, watching it sit under ice or water, emerge to become a land mass, and break apart or re-submerge before becoming the place where you live, or had your first kiss, or went to college — all that tedious human stuff that tectonic plates have no time for.

Our seven modern-day continents are traced out against the shifting surface of the planet, enabling users to put in perspective that the rapid gentrification of neighborhoods (while cataclysmic in its own right) is hardly the only geographical change taking place. With Ancient Earth, users can contextualize the land where we currently stand in geologic terms, all the while learning about exciting events of the deep past, such as the emergence of coral reefs (470 million years ago), first insects (400 million years ago), the formation of the Pangea supercontinent in the Early Triassic Period (240 million years ago), and dinosaur extinction in the Late Cretaceous Period (66 million years ago).

The city of Detroit, Michigan, shown 600 million years ago on Ancient Earth (screenshot Sarah Rose Sharp/Hyperallergic)

The final vision that Ancient Earth offers is a portrait from 20 million years ago, as mammals and birds continue to evolve into modern forms and Johnny-come-lately hominids begin to emerge in Africa. As one scrolls through time, supplemental information about the formation of land masses, emerging life forms, and atmospheric conditions accompanies the visualizations.

Ancient Earth credits data from the PALEOMAP Project, generated by paleogeographer Christopher Scotese, whose stated goal is to “illustrate the plate tectonic development of the ocean basins and continents, as well as the changing distribution of land and sea during the past 1100 million years,” according to its website.

Scotese’s rigorous research encompasses virtual and analog resources on tectonic reconstruction. But when we are considering geologic time that predates human quantification by hundreds of millions of years, a certain degree of artistic license must be taken.

Detroit during the dinosaur mass extinction of the Late Cretaceous Period (screenshot Sarah Rose Sharp/Hyperallergic)

“Even though plate tectonic models return precise results, you should consider the plots approximate (obviously we will never be able to prove correctness),” Webster acknowledged in a discussion thread introducing Ancient Earth as an open-source learning tool on Hacker News. “In my tests I found that model results can vary significantly. I chose this particular model because it is widely cited and covers the greatest length of time.”

While paleogeology stans are now set to quibble over the details of Ancient Earth, the rest of us — who in pandemic year three can hardly remember what happened yesterday — can enjoy this opportunity to scroll back through time. Perhaps the philosophers among us can revel in the notion that Earth was around for a long time before we made the scene, and will likely survive us, no matter what trouble we make in our short time here.

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Sarah Rose Sharp

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit —...

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