[Note: this is not a scientific article, but merely my attempt to make light of a possible reality which is scaring me.]
The End is nigh . . . at least that is the impression I’m getting from recent newspaper headlines. They seem to be jumping onto the 2012 phenomenon bandwagon, despite the fact that “scholars from various disciplines have dismissed the idea of such cataclysmic events occurring in 2012″. It seems people have misinterpreted the Mayan Long Count calendar which ends in 2012. It marks the end of an age, not the end of the world. Phew!
Of course we have already been warned about impending doom by movies such as 2012 (“An epic adventure about a global cataclysm that brings an end to the world and tells of the heroic struggle of the survivors“), Armageddon (“When an asteroid the size of Texas is headed for Earth the world’s best deep core drilling team is sent to nuke the rock from the inside“) and The Day After Tomorrow. In the latter, according to the Internet Movie Data Base summary, “A climatologist tries to figure out a way to save the world from abrupt global warming. He must get to his young son in New York, which is being taken over by a new ice age.” That last sentence sounds counter-intuitive – which must be one of the reasons scientists call it “climate change” and not “global warming”. Although I enjoyed the movie (I love snow!), I was a bit sceptical about just how quickly the new ice age set in. Then again, I read an article the other day that with the Arctic permafrost thawing, methane gas (bad gas for climate change) is being released into the atmosphere and adding to the problem i.e. the problem is “snowballing”!
However, climate change is going to be the least of our problems here on Earth. The two big threats to our existence are supervolcanoes (“super” not in the “great” sense, but really, really big ones!) and asteroids, both of which could cause substantial damage to humankind were they to be inflicted on us.
Note that Mount St Helens is not a supervolcano. For those of you who don’t know . . .
A supervolcano is a volcano capable of producing a volcanic eruption with an ejecta volume greater than 1,000 cubic kilometers (240 cubic miles). This is thousands of times larger than most historic volcanic eruptions.
Supervolcanoes can occur when magma in the Earth rises into the crust from a hotspot but is unable to break through the crust. Pressure builds in a large and growing magma pool until the crust is unable to contain the pressure. They can also form at convergent plate boundaries (for example, Toba) and continental hotspot locations (for example, Yellowstone).
The Discovery Channel highlighted six known supervolcanoes:Yellowstone, Long Valley, and Valles Caldera in the United States; Lake Toba, North Sumatra, Indonesia; Taupo Volcano, North Island, New Zealand; and Aira Caldera, Kagoshima Prefecture, Kyūshū, Japan.
Although there are only a handful of Quaternary supervolcanoes, supervolcanic eruptions typically cover huge areas with lava and volcanic ash and cause a long-lasting change to weather (such as the triggering of a small ice age) sufficient to threaten species with extinction.
From Wikipedia: Read more . . .
The term “supervolcano” is not a scientific one. It was first used in the BBC’s Horizon (science) programme and stuck. Obviously they need more catchy titles for their documentaries!
Scientists have known about supervolcanoes for a long time. They were previously thought to take between 100,000 to 200,000 years to build up enough pressure for the massive eruption to take place. But now it seems that Supervolcanoes that could destroy humanity ‘may explode sooner than scientists thought’. The online journal, Public Library of Science ONE, now suggests the process could take just thousands or even hundreds of years. Which would make supervolcanoes like Yellowstone due for one sooner rather than later.
The consequences could be quite horrific. If you want to know the details read this article: What If the Yellowstone Supervolcano Erupts? It is scary stuff, even for somebody like me not living anywhere close to a supervolcano, as the consequences would be global. But, scientists and governments are putting some thought into a disaster plan – how to evacuate people before a major eruption, and how to recover after it.
Thank goodness we don’t have any supervolcanoes in Southern Africa, and that our local city municipality is not doing the supervolcano recovery planning. When I recently looked up disaster recovery plans for our city, I couldn’t find any. Although there is mention of a plan, the emergency services evidently think it’s not important for the general public to know what to do and where to go. I just found a very interesting page (with an animation) instructing people how to navigate the many small traffic circles in our city. Because they’re small, you have to choose the right lane before entering the traffic circle. Important stuff.
There is an upside to the supervolcano threat though . . .
Based on the new models, the scientists now think the vast majority of Earth’s species would weather a Yellowstone supereruption just fine (except, of course, for those knocked out due to proximity of the initial blast). They don’t see any evidence in the geologic record of mass extinctions coinciding with supereruptions, and they don’t predict extinctions to result from such geologic events in the future.
“The last time Yellowstone erupted, no extinctions took place,” said Michael Rampino, a biologist and geologist at New York University. “Supereruptions are not extinction-level events,” he said, but added that they can obviously cause problems for civilization.
For areas that aren’t near any supervolcanoes, there is another cataclysmic event with which we can scare ourselves silly. The possibility of the Earth being hit by an asteroid. Asteroids are the rocky remains from the formation of the solar system about 4.6 billion years ago. There are millions of asteroids of different sizes orbiting the sun. According to the Wikipedia article, asteroids vary greatly in size, from almost 1000 kilometres for the largest down to rocks just tens of metres across. The problem would be if one of the bigger asteroids would hit the earth. It is thought that one of the factors leading to the mass extinction of the dinosaurs was 5 to 15 kilometers (3 to 9 miles) wide asteroid which hit in the vicinity of the Yucatán Peninsula (in southeastern Mexico). [Follow the link to read the details of this.]
So I find it rather alarming to read headlines like Huge asteroid to pass by Earth Thursday [14 June 2012] evening and Two small asteroids buzz Earth in one-two punch (which as far as I can tell NASA only told us after it had happened). An early warning system (such as those set up for hurricanes and tsunamis) is being considered.
The nations of the world need to work together to develop a warning and communication system that could mitigate the worst effects of a catastrophic asteroid strike, a new report stresses.
Such a system would issue international warnings about possible impending strikes and educate the public about the threats posed by near-Earth objects. It also would call government leaders’ and the public’s attention to the scientific value and potential economic importance of asteroids.
From: Space.com – Read more . . .
Hopefully, this would give us plenty of time to react and not be a “brace yourself” kind of warning!
Again, there is an upside to an event like this. If we (and our technology) survived the initial impact, we could mine the asteroid for precious metals such as gold and platinum. This article says that a smallish asteroid, about 200 metres across and rich in platinum, could be worth $30 billion. The article goes so far as to suggest that mining of asteroids (I’m assuming this would be in space) would give NASA and space exploration “a renewed purpose”. Could the scenario in Armageddon come true?
Of course the “Doomsday headline” which really concerned me most was ‘Internet blackout’ set for 9 July. Since I’m an Internet addict, that really got my attention. How was I going to survive without the Internet? Was this just for a short while, or would this take forever to sort out? The situation seems not to be as dire as the headline suggests though . . .
On 9 July this year, the internet will suddenly ‘turn off’ for thousands of users around the world.
Around 350,000 PC users (85,000 are in the U.S and 20,000 are in the UK) have machines infected with an invisible, undetectable ‘Trojan’ computer virus called DNSChanger, which sends users of the Web to unintended – and sometimes illegal – sites.
When the FBI detected the infection they set up ‘surrogate’ servers to keep the infected PCs working – but it’s costing so much that they intend to ‘pull the plug’ on 9 July.
MailOnline: Read more here . . .
Well, that doesn’t seem so bad. Only 350 000 PC users. What I’m wondering though is why the FBI is involved? Is it a matter of national security? Since I don’t live in the US or UK, I figured I was probably quite safe. However, I did check this story (one never knows with MailOnline!). The FBI has provided the information to let you check to see whether your computer has gone rogue.
So are you scared yet?