Greater Disasters

asteroid.jpgThough our eyes are still sty-stuck and blurry from too many hours of news stories, telethons and the ensuing sorrow in the aftermath of Katrina, we are facing yet another marathon of anxiety with the Cat 5 monstrosity called Rita. The good news is that everyone is going into this with the lessons of Katrina fresh in their minds, so hopefully the loss of life will be minimized.

In Louisiana, the darts of blame continue to fly, and they may never find a single target. But despite problems with the bureaucratic response to this tragedy, I think we can agree that this scenario for disaster was well known: A city beside a sea and a lake, that was built in a sunken, hurricane prone area below the level of both the sea and the lake. When it comes to protecting a place against such a confluence of natural forces, human ingenuity has its limits.

Aside from this horrifying but predictable event, consider the natural disasters that have sprung from nowhere over the past year: A string of major hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico, the Indonesian earthquake and tsunami, flooding in California and India, fires in western North America and droughts in the Midwest and Australia. We know that such events are bound to happen, but successfully predicting when and where is nearly impossible.

What are the inevitable disasters lurking in the future? Will we be prepared for them? As someone who often obsessively ponders worst case scenarios, I can tell you that we are in for far greater disasters than anyone has seen so far. We can try to predict earthquakes, provide early-warnings for tsunamis, create highly effective disaster plans for floods, hurricanes, tornadoes and such, but none of these disasters will cause the scale of global destruction as when the earth collides with a large object from space.

Our solar system is swarming with asteroids and comets, and we have watched them collide with other planets fairly recently. The earth itself has been hit several times in the distant past, so we know with great certainty that it will happen again. But so far, very little attention has been given to monitoring the threats or assembling a prevention strategy (or determining whether such a thing is indeed preventable). The theory that the recent global warming trend can be attributed to human activity and will ultimately ruin the planet has been discussed at length, though the fact that we might be destroyed by an asteroid long before that happens has been largely ignored.

As the media and various activist groups continue to harp on easily politicized issues such as global warming and inadequately maintained levees, consider that the worst disasters are the ones we never see coming. Go outside tonight and look up at the sky, then ask yourself how many others are paying attention to the vast number of objects skipping through our patch of space and what kind of plans are in place for deflecting them when they wander this way. There will be no left to blame if we let these stones drop.

For more reading, please visit the NASA Near Earth Object Program site. Increased funding for such programs is vital and international cooperation is essential, so let’s start to make some noise about it. As usual, if you think I’m a heroic Buck Rogers type or simply lost in space, please leave comments or use The Issue Box to set me back on course.

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