From the Archives: Gregg Easterbrook on the Asteroid Threat

Later today, the asteroid affectionately called 2005 YU55 will sail by Earth at an unusually close distance -- coming closer to our planet than the moon does during its orbit. No other asteroid this size has come as close in more than 30 years and none is expected to do so again until 2028.

In the June 2008 issue of The Atlantic, writer Gregg Easterbrook examined the odds -- which he said could be as high as one in 10 per century -- that a devastating asteroid could strike Earth, and asked what more we should be doing to prepare. He wrote:

Breakthrough ideas have a way of seeming obvious in retro­spect, and about a decade ago, a Columbia University geophysicist named Dallas Abbott had a breakthrough idea. She had been pondering the craters left by comets and asteroids that smashed into Earth. Geologists had counted them and concluded that space strikes are rare events and had occurred mainly during the era of primordial mists. But, Abbott realized, this deduction was based on the number of craters found on land--and because 70 percent of Earth's surface is water, wouldn't most space objects hit the sea? So she began searching for underwater craters caused by impacts rather than by other forces, such as volcanoes. What she has found is spine-chilling: evidence that several enormous asteroids or comets have slammed into our planet quite recently, in geologic terms. If Abbott is right, then you may be here today, reading this magazine, only because by sheer chance those objects struck the ocean rather than land.

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.

At the start of her research, which has sparked much debate among specialists, Abbott reasoned that if colossal asteroids or comets strike the sea with about the same frequency as they strike land, then given the number of known land craters, perhaps 100 large impact craters might lie beneath the oceans. In less than a decade of searching, she and a few colleagues have already found what appear to be 14 large underwater impact sites. That they've found so many so rapidly is hardly reassuring.

Other scientists are making equally unsettling discoveries. Only in the past few decades have astronomers begun to search the nearby skies for objects such as asteroids and comets (for convenience, let's call them "space rocks"). What they are finding suggests that near-Earth space rocks are more numerous than was once thought, and that their orbits may not be as stable as has been assumed. There is also reason to think that space rocks may not even need to reach Earth's surface to cause cataclysmic damage. Our solar system appears to be a far more dangerous place than was previously believed.

The received wisdom about the origins of the solar system goes something like this: the sun and planets formed about 4.5 billion years ago from a swirling nebula containing huge amounts of gas and dust, as well as relatively small amounts of metals and other dense substances released by ancient supernova explosions. The sun is at the center; the denser planets, including Earth, formed in the middle region, along with many asteroids--the small rocky bodies made of material that failed to incorporate into a planet. Farther out are the gas-giant planets, such as Jupiter, plus vast amounts of light elements, which formed comets on the boundary of the solar system. Early on, asteroids existed by the millions; the planets and their satellites were bombarded by constant, furious strikes. The heat and shock waves generated by these impacts regularly sterilized the young Earth. Only after the rain of space objects ceased could life begin; by then, most asteroids had already either hit something or found stable orbits that do not lead toward planets or moons. Asteroids still exist, but most were assumed to be in the asteroid belt, which lies between Mars and Jupiter, far from our blue world.

As for comets, conventional wisdom held that they also bombarded the planets during the early eons. Comets are mostly frozen water mixed with dirt. An ancient deluge of comets may have helped create our oceans; lots of comets hit the moon, too, but there the light elements they were composed of evaporated. As with asteroids, most comets were thought to have smashed into something long ago; and, because the solar system is largely void, researchers deemed it statistically improbable that those remaining would cross the paths of planets.

These standard assumptions--that remaining space rocks are few, and that encounters with planets were mainly confined to the past--are being upended. On March 18, 2004, for instance, a 30-meter asteroid designated 2004 FH--a hunk potentially large enough to obliterate a city--shot past Earth, not far above the orbit occupied by telecommunications satellites. (Enter "2004 FH" in the search box at Wikipedia and you can watch film of that asteroid passing through the night sky.) Looking at the broader picture, in 1992 the astronomers David Jewitt, of the University of Hawaii, and Jane Luu, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, discovered the Kuiper Belt, a region of asteroids and comets that starts near the orbit of Neptune and extends for immense distances outward. At least 1,000 objects big enough to be seen from Earth have already been located there. These objects are 100 kilometers across or larger, much bigger than whatever dispatched the dinosaurs; space rocks this size are referred to as "planet killers" because their impact would likely end life on Earth.

Check out the piece in its entirety here.

Presented by

Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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