The explosion in the popularity of astronomy in the last few decades has paved the way for artistic representations of the end of the world. Novels like Lucifer’s Hammer and films like Armageddon make it seem like a catastrophic asteroid impact is not only possible, but probable. And while the odds are infinitesimal that an impact event will happen in our lifetime, there is no question that a cosmic interloper will hit Earth, and we won’t have to wait millions of years for it to happen.
In 1908 a 200-foot-wide comet fragment slammed into the atmosphere and exploded over the Tunguska region in Siberia, Russia, with nearly 1,000 times the energy of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
Astronomers estimate similar-sized events occur every one to three centuries. Benny Peiser, an anthropologist-cum-pessimist at Liverpool John Moores University in England, claims that impacts have repeatedly disrupted human civilization. As an example, he says one killed 10,000 people in the Chinese city of Chi’ing-yang in 1490. Many scientists question his interpretations: Impacts are most likely to occur over the ocean, and small ones that happen over land are most likely to affect unpopulated areas. But with big asteroids, it doesn’t matter much where they land. Objects more than a half-mile wide- which strike Earth every 250,000 years or so- would touch off firestorms followed by global cooling from dust kicked up by the impact. Humans would likely survive, but civilization might not. An asteroid five miles wide would cause major extinctions, like the one that may have marked the end of the age of dinosaurs.
For a real chill, look to the Kuiper belt, a zone just beyond Neptune that contains roughly 100,000 ice-balls more than 50 miles in diameter. The Kuiper belt sends a steady rain of small comets earthward. If one of the big ones headed right for us, that would be it for pretty much all higher forms of life, even cockroaches.
If you could watch the sky with gamma-ray vision, you might think you were being stalked by cosmic paparazzi. Once a day or so, you would see a bright flash appear, briefly outshine everything else, then vanish. These gamma-ray bursts, astrophysicists recently learned, originate in distant galaxies and are unfathomably powerful- as much as 10 quadrillion (a one followed by 16 zeros) times as energetic as the sun. The bursts probably result from the merging of two collapsed stars. Before the cataclysmal event, such a double star might be almost completely undetectable, so we’d likely have no advance notice if one is lurking nearby. Once the burst begins, however, there would be no missing its fury.
At a distance of 1,000 light-years- farther than most of the stars you can see on a clear night- it would appear about as bright as the sun. Earth’s atmosphere would initially protect us from most of the burst’s deadly X rays and gamma rays, but at a cost. The potent radiation would cook the atmosphere, creating nitrogen oxides that would destroy the ozone layer. Without the ozone layer, ultraviolet rays from the sun would reach the surface at nearly full force, causing skin cancer and, more seriously, killing off the tiny photosynthetic plankton in the ocean that provide oxygen to the atmosphere and bolster the bottom of the food chain. All the gamma-ray bursts observed so far have been extremely distant, which implies the events are rare. Scientists understand so little about these explosions, however, that it’s difficult to estimate the likelihood of one detonating in our galactic neighborhood.
Collapse of the Vacuum
In the book Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut popularized the idea of “ice-nine,” a form of water that is far more stable than the ordinary kind, so it is solid at room temperature. Unleash a bit of it, and suddenly all water on Earth transforms to ice-nine and freezes solid. Ice-nine was a satirical invention, but an abrupt, disastrous phase transition is a possibility. Very early in the history of the universe, according to a leading cosmological model, empty space was full of energy.
This state of affairs, called a false vacuum, was highly precarious. A new, more stable kind of vacuum appeared and, like ice-nine, it quickly took over. This transition unleashed a tremendous amount of energy and caused a brief runaway expansion of the cosmos. It is possible that another, even more stable kind of vacuum exists, however. As the universe expands and cools, tiny bubbles of this new kind of vacuum might appear and spread at nearly the speed of light. The laws of physics would change in their wake, and a blast of energy would dash everything to bits. “It makes for a beautiful story, but it’s not very likely,” says Piet Hut of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, New Jersey. He says he worries more about threats that scientists are more certain of- such as rogue black holes.
Rogue Black Holes
Our galaxy is full of black holes, collapsed stellar corpses just a dozen miles wide. How full? Tough question. After all, they’re called black holes for a reason. Their gravity is so strong they swallow everything, even the light that might betray their presence. David Bennett of Notre Dame University in Indiana managed to spot two black holes recently by the way they distorted and amplified the light of ordinary, more distant stars. Based on such observations, and even more on theoretical arguments, researchers guesstimate there are about 10 million black holes in the Milky Way.
These objects orbit just like other stars, meaning that it is not terribly likely that one is headed our way. But if a normal star were moving toward us, we’d know it. With a black hole there is little warning. A few decades before a close encounter, at most, astronomers would observe a strange perturbation in the orbits of the outer planets. As the effect grew larger, it would be possible to make increasingly precise estimates of the location and mass of the interloper.
The black hole wouldn’t have to come all that close to Earth to bring ruin; just passing through the solar system would distort all of the planets’ orbits. Earth might get drawn into an elliptical path that would cause extreme climate swings, or it might be ejected from the solar system and go hurtling to a frigid fate in deep space.
Giant Solar Flares
Solar flares- more properly known as coronal mass ejections- are enormous magnetic outbursts on the sun that bombard Earth with a torrent of high-speed subatomic particles. Earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field negate the potentially lethal effects of ordinary flares. But while looking through old astronomical records, Bradley Schaefer of Yale University found evidence that some perfectly normal-looking, sunlike stars can brighten briefly by up to a factor of 20. Schaefer believes these stellar flickers are caused by superflares, millions of times more powerful than their common cousins. Within a few hours, a superflare on the sun could fry Earth and begin disintegrating the ozone layer (see #2).
Although there is persuasive evidence that our sun doesn’t engage in such excess, scientists don’t know why superflares happen at all, or whether our sun could exhibit milder but still disruptive behavior. And while too much solar activity could be deadly, too little of it is problematic as well. Sallie Baliunas at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics says many solar-type stars pass through extended quiescent periods, during which they become nearly 1 percent dimmer. That might not sound like much, but a similar downturn in the sun could send us into another ice age. Baliunas cites evidence that decreased solar activity contributed to 17 of the 19 major cold episodes on Earth in the last 10,000 years.
Reversal of Earth’s Magnetic Field
Every few hundred thousand years Earth’s magnetic field dwindles almost to nothing for perhaps a century, then gradually reappears with the north and south poles flipped. The last such reversal was 780,000 years ago, so we may be overdue. Worse, the strength of our magnetic field has decreased about 5 percent in the past century. Why worry in an age when GPS has made compasses obsolete?
Well, the magnetic field deflects particle storms and cosmic rays from the sun, as well as even more energetic subatomic particles from deep space. Without magnetic protection, these particles would strike Earth’s atmosphere, eroding the already beleaguered ozone layer (see #5). Also, many creatures navigate by magnetic reckoning. A magnetic reversal might cause serious ecological mischief. One big caveat: “There are no identifiable fossil effects from previous flips,” says Sten Odenwald of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. “This is most curious.” Still, a disaster that kills a quarter of the population, like the Black Plague in Europe, would hardly register as a blip in fossil records.
In 1783, the Laki volcano in Iceland erupted, spitting out three cubic miles of lava. Floods, ash, and fumes wiped out 9,000 people and 80 percent of the livestock. The ensuing starvation killed a quarter of Iceland’s population. Atmospheric dust caused winter temperatures to plunge by 9 degrees in the newly independent United States. And that was just a baby’s burp compared with what the Earth can do. Sixty-five million years ago, a plume of hot rock from the mantle burst through the crust in what is now India. Eruptions raged century after century, ultimately unleashing a quarter-million cubic miles of lava- the Laki eruption 100,000 times over. Some scientists still blame the Indian outburst, not an asteroid, for the death of the dinosaurs. An earlier, even larger event in Siberia occurred just about the time of the Permian-Triassic extinction, the most thorough extermination known to paleontology. At that time 95 percent of all species were wiped out.
Sulfurous volcanic gases produce acid rains. Chlorine-bearing compounds present yet another threat to the fragile ozone layer- a noxious brew all around. While they are causing short-term destruction, volcanoes also release carbon dioxide that yields long-term greenhouse-effect warming.The last big pulse of flood-basalt volcanism built the Columbia River plateau about 17 million years ago. We’re ripe for another.
If Earth doesn’t do us in, our fellow organisms might be up to the task. Germs and people have always coexisted, but occasionally the balance gets out of whack. The Black Plague killed one European in four during the 14th century; influenza took at least 20 million lives between 1918 and 1919; the AIDS epidemic has produced a similar death toll and is still going strong. From 1980 to 1992, reported the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, mortality from infectious disease in the United States rose 58 percent. Just about a decade ago, Infectious diseases killed 1/3 worldwide; AIDS was the top cause of death in developing regions. Old diseases such as cholera and measles have developed new resistance to antibiotics. Intensive agriculture and land development is bringing humans closer to animal pathogens.
International travel means diseases can spread faster than ever. Michael Osterholm, an infectious disease expert who formerly worked at the Minnesota Department of Health, described the situation as “like trying to swim against the current of a raging river.” The grimmest possibility would be the emergence of a strain that spreads so fast we are caught off guard or that resists all chemical means of control, perhaps as a result of our stirring of the ecological pot. About 12,000 years ago, a sudden wave of mammal extinctions swept through the Americas. Ross MacPhee of the American Museum of Natural History argues the culprit was extremely virulent disease, which humans helped transport as they migrated into the New World.