Wednesday, February 20, 2013

"The Sky is Falling"

Given the recent explosion in Russia from a meteor, Glenn Reynolds has linked to this 2008 article from the Atlantic on the dangers posed by asteroids and comets striking the Earth. Some parts I found interesting:
Abbott believes that a space object about 300 meters in diameter hit the Gulf of Carpentaria, north of Australia, in 536 A.D. An object that size, striking at up to 50,000 miles per hour, could release as much energy as 1,000 nuclear bombs. Debris, dust, and gases thrown into the atmosphere by the impact would have blocked sunlight, temporarily cooling the planet—and indeed, contemporaneous accounts describe dim skies, cold summers, and poor harvests in 536 and 537. “A most dread portent took place,” the Byzantine historian Procopius wrote of 536; the sun “gave forth its light without brightness.” Frost reportedly covered China in the summertime. Still, the harm was mitigated by the ocean impact. When a space object strikes land, it kicks up more dust and debris, increasing the global-cooling effect; at the same time, the combination of shock waves and extreme heating at the point of impact generates nitric and nitrous acids, producing rain as corrosive as battery acid. If the Gulf of Carpentaria object were to strike Miami today, most of the city would be leveled, and the atmospheric effects could trigger crop failures around the world.

What’s more, the Gulf of Carpentaria object was a skipping stone compared with an object that Abbott thinks whammed into the Indian Ocean near Madagascar some 4,800 years ago, or about 2,800 B.C. Researchers generally assume that a space object a kilometer or more across would cause significant global harm: widespread destruction, severe acid rain, and dust storms that would darken the world’s skies for decades. The object that hit the Indian Ocean was three to five kilometers across, Abbott believes, and caused a tsunami in the Pacific 600 feet high—many times higher than the 2004 tsunami that struck Southeast Asia. Ancient texts such as Genesis and the Epic of Gilgamesh support her conjecture, describing an unspeakable planetary flood in roughly the same time period. If the Indian Ocean object were to hit the sea now, many of the world’s coastal cities could be flattened. If it were to hit land, much of a continent would be leveled; years of winter and mass starvation would ensue.
... About 12,000 years ago, many large animals of North America started disappearing—woolly mammoths, saber-toothed cats, mastodons, and others. Some scientists have speculated that Paleo-Indians may have hunted some of the creatures to extinction. A millennia-long mini–Ice Age also may have been a factor. But if that’s the case, what explains the disappearance of the Clovis People, the best-documented Paleo-Indian culture, at about the same time? Their population stretched as far south as Mexico, so the mini–Ice Age probably was not solely responsible for their extinction.

A team of researchers led by Richard Firestone, of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, in California, recently announced the discovery of evidence that one or two huge space rocks, each perhaps several kilometers across, exploded high above Canada 12,900 years ago. The detonation, they believe, caused widespread fires and dust clouds, and disrupted climate patterns so severely that it triggered a prolonged period of global cooling. Mammoths and other species might have been killed either by the impact itself or by starvation after their food supply was disrupted. These conclusions, though hotly disputed by other researchers, were based on extensive examinations of soil samples from across the continent; in strata from that era, scientists found widely distributed soot and also magnetic grains of iridium, an element that is rare on Earth but common in space. Iridium is the meteor-hunter’s lodestar: the discovery of iridium dating back 65 million years is what started the geologist Walter Alvarez on his path-breaking theory about the dinosaurs’ demise.

A more recent event gives further cause for concern. As buffs of the television show The X Files will recall, just a century ago, in 1908, a huge explosion occurred above Tunguska, Siberia. The cause was not a malfunctioning alien star-cruiser but a small asteroid or comet that detonated as it approached the ground. The blast had hundreds of times the force of the Hiroshima bomb and devastated an area of several hundred square miles. Had the explosion occurred above London or Paris, the city would no longer exist. Mark Boslough, a researcher at the Sandia National Laboratory, in New Mexico, recently concluded that the Tunguska object was surprisingly small, perhaps only 30 meters across. Right now, astronomers are nervously tracking 99942 Apophis, an asteroid with a slight chance of striking Earth in April 2036. Apophis is also small by asteroid standards, perhaps 300 meters across, but it could hit with about 60,000 times the force of the Hiroshima bomb—enough to destroy an area the size of France. In other words, small asteroids may be more dangerous than we used to think—and may do considerable damage even if they don’t reach Earth’s surface.
... If, as Boslough thinks, most asteroids and comets explode before reaching the ground, then this is another reason to fear that the conventional thinking seriously underestimates the frequency of space-rock strikes—the small number of craters may be lulling us into complacency. After all, if a space rock were hurtling toward a city, whether it would leave a crater would not be the issue—the explosion would be the issue.

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