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5 February 2004

Catastrophes, Calamities and Cultural Lag

By Gwynne Dyer

Now we have to worry about gamma rays, too. University of Kansas astrophysicist Adrian Melott told the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society last month that the Ordovician extinction, which wiped out most of the species on Earth 440 million years ago, was probably caused by a huge burst of gamma rays from outer space. A giant star around 10,000 light years from here exploded, and when the resulting gamma rays struck our planet they destroyed the ozone layer and created a toxic brown smog that cut the sunlight reaching the surface in half. Over two-thirds of the species that then existed became extinct. Oh, and you can expect another such event every few hundred million years.

“It could happen tomorrow or it could be millions of years,” said Dr. Melott. Just to be safe, though, maybe we should build a giant screen to shield the Earth from gamma rays. We’d have to dismantle Mars to get enough material, of course, and it would be tricky to move the screen round to the right side of our planet fast enough when we see an exploding star somewhere. And since the gamma rays would arrive at exactly the same moment as the first visible light from the explosion, we wouldn’t have any warning time at all….

Perhaps we should just hope it doesn’t happen again any time soon, since there is actually nothing we can do about bursts of gamma rays. But the past twenty years or so have seen a whole series of discoveries about abrupt and catastrophic events that have hugely affected life on Earth in the past, and some of them are neither unpredictable nor unstoppable. Take asteroids, for example.

Most people know that it was a giant asteroid smashing into the Gulf of Mexico that killed off the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, making way for the age of the mammals. Fewer people know that it was probably another asteroid, smashing into what is now eastern Quebec around 200 million years ago, that opened the way for the dinosaurs. It was one of the less dramatic extinction events, killing off only half the species on Earth, but it did eliminate the mammal-like reptiles that were then the dinosaurs’ major competition.

“Dinosaurs skated through this, but large mammal-like reptiles went completely extinct,” explained paleontologist Peter Ward of the University of Washington in 2001. “One of the great mysteries has been…why would these creatures, which are seemingly better adapted for eating a variety of plant sources, die out and the dinosaurs not? And the answer is: mass extinctions don’t give a hoot about your adaptations for everyday life. There’s a lottery involved.”

At least 900 asteroids more than half a mile (1 km.) in diameter cross the Earth’s orbit. Small but still potentially dangerous asteroids hit our planet all the time: one that struck north of Lake Baikal in eastern Siberia in September 2002 flattened 40 sq. mi. (100 sq. km.) of forest. (If it had come down over Moscow or New York, it would have killed millions.) So you would think that human beings would be trying hard to create a defence against this danger, would you not?

“If we’re due to be hit within a day, week, month or year, we’re not going to spot it,” said astrophysicist Duncan Steel of Salford University. “A 200-metre object plonking down into the Atlantic would effectively take out all the cities around the seaboards. Those smaller events occur rather more frequently — (it’s a) once every several thousand years event.” Steel believes, however, that this sort of disaster can be prevented: “If one’s due in 50 years, I think we could spot it….I’m optimistic that we have the scientific and technical capability to detect and divert it.”

Good luck, but there is already a well-known object — much slower-moving but vastly more massive — that could produce a tsunami big enough to drown all the cities that face the Atlantic, and nobody is even watching it. An enormous chunk of the Cumbre Vieja volcano on the island of La Palma in the Canaries has become detached from the main body of the island and is sliding slowly towards the sea. It suddenly dropped more than 4 yards (4 metres) in 1949 and then stopped, but it continues to creep seaward.

If it drops into the sea one day, a tsunami 60 yards (50 metres) high will reach the west coasts of Africa and Europe in an hour or two, and the east-coast cities of the United States in four hours. A few hours’ warning could save millions of lives, so you probably think that somebody is monitoring the movement of this mass of rock. Wrong. The people who have most to lose if Cumbre Vieja slides into the sea are paying no attention at all.

We are also paying little attention to global warming, and failing to monitor 90 percent of the world’s 3,000 volcanoes even though a really big once-in-50,000-years explosion would cause the equivalent of a nuclear winter. (There’s nothing you can do about a supervolcano exploding, but at least you can have a few years’ warning to prepare.) It’s a kind of cultural lag. We have discovered that our world is a far more dangerous place than we ever dreamed, but we still can’t accept the reality of it.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 5. (It could…all; and”Dinosaurs….lottery”)