Just the other day, David Copperfield announced that he was going to make the Moon disappear. Now, knowing that Mr. Copperfield is an illusionist and not a supervillain, I feel pretty confident that he is simply going to make it appear that the Moon has disappeared, and not make it actually disappear. But in case I’m wrong, I’d like to make a direct plea: Mr. Copperfield, please don’t make the Moon actually disappear!

The effects of this catastrophe would range from immediately devastating to those species that have evolved to rely on the Moon and its cycles for survival to subtle shifts for our planet and climate unfolding over millions of years.

I should say that, as humans, while we’d certainly miss the Moon, there wouldn’t be any sudden, blockbuster movie-type events to worry about. Lover’s nights might be less romantic. Aspiring Dean Martins would have fewer things to compare amore to. Werewolves may see significant savings on their clothing budgets.

But, if you happen to be a dung beetle, you’ll notice the missing Moon right away. Dung beetles subsist on the fresh dung of their larger, usually mammalian, animal relatives. There are those who might turn their nose up at dung, but it is packed with nutrients and moisture. And among the dung beetle population, the fight for fecal feasts is fierce – beetles will descend on fresh droppings in a manure melee. Balls of dung are fashioned and quickly rolled away from the principal pile, before less industrious beetle bandits can steal the stinky sphere. It turns out that the most successful beetles – and thus the most likely to survive – are those that push their balls away in a straight line; the survival of the fastest.

Life would be a lot tougher for dung beetles with no Moon!

How do those successful beetles manage such a navigational feat? They follow the Moon! Dung beetles are able to detect the Moon’s polarized light and use it as a compass to map the quickest, straightest route to safety. Take away the Moon and the hapless beetle has no sense of direction, following a non-optimized, meandering path fraught with peril and a low chance of making it to safety with its indispensable rondure of ordure.

To put it bluntly, if you are a dung beetle in a suddenly Moonless world (or another of the multitude of animals that rely on the Moon for survival), you may find yourself faced with starvation almost immediately.

Okay, maybe you aren’t overcome with pity for the plight of the dung beetle. Let’s look at a larger scale issue that the disappearance of the Moon would create. Ocean tides would be reduced by about two-thirds. While that might not seem to be a game changer, consider that Earth has about 360,000 miles of coastline (that’s farther than the distance from Earth to the Moon), which encompasses the ecologically essential intertidal zone found on every continent. Thousands upon thousands of species have adapted to live in this zone, which is defined by the lowest water at low tide and the highest water at high tide. Diminish tides by two-thirds and you reduce the intertidal ecosystem by 66% in one, fell swoop.

The Moon helps create the tides via gravity. The Sun does its share, too, which is why tides would only be reduced, and not eliminated. Tides are actually quite simple; wherever the Moon is in its orbit around Earth, its gravity will pull Earth’s ocean towards it. Water levels will be high directly beneath the Moon. On the opposite side of Earth, as far removed as you can get from the Moon’s gravity, water is also high, as it tends to slosh away from the surface of the spinning Earth.

Image credit: National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration

So, the tides don’t really rise and fall or go in and out. Water bulges out from the surface of the Earth based on where the Moon happens to be, and the Earth spins through the bulges. Let’s say that you live in San Francisco. You are along for the ride as Earth spins around, and twice each day you rotate through the high-water bulges created by the Moon’s gravity. See? Simple.

Still not convinced that the loss of the Moon would be devastating? Alright then, here’s the biggie: without our Moon, life – yes, all life – on Earth will likely go extinct. Not right away, but over time it would get harder and harder to be a living thing on Earth.

The Moon is responsible for the long-term stability of Earth’s seasons and climate. Without the Moon regulating Earth’s tilt, the global climate would become so irregular as to make it very difficult for life to carry on as it has for the past 3.5 billion years.

Earth is currently tilted about 23.4° from the plane of our solar system. Seasons happen because of this tilt. When the northern hemisphere is tilted toward the Sun, it’s summer. When it’s tilted away, it’s winter. Regular, like clockwork. If the tilt decreases, seasons become more temperate. If there is no tilt, there are no seasons. If the tilt increases, seasons become more extreme. And, yes, this change of tilt happens now, in cycles that are pretty well understood. But it’s a fairly tame wobble of only 2.4°, which means that the changes are manageable.

Take the Moon away, and things would get seriously topsy turvy.

Alright then, here’s the biggie: without our Moon, life – yes, all life – on Earth will likely go extinct.

Imagine Earth’s tilt wobbling with wild abandon, going from 23.4° to 90° and back again over the course of just thousands of years. Seasons would cease to have regularity. The climate would be in chaos. The lifecycles of plants and, by extension, animal life (because all animal life ultimately depends on plant life for its energy) would be irreparably disrupted. The pace of change would be too rapid to allow for evolutionary adaptation, which takes place over thousands of generations.

Without our Moon, the Earth might not meet the requirements for a “habitable” planet – meaning the end of life as we know it. And we know that’s not what you have in mind, right Mr. Copperfield? Right?

By Jeff Rodgers