Ten Global Calamities – existential disasters facing the human race
OK, if I’m going to go for five depressing posts in a row, why mess around? Here is my list of the top ten possible calamities facing the human race. I’m defining a calamity as a terrible event that could kill huge numbers of people, millions or more, in a very short space of time (say in less than a year) over a large portion of the globe. I have tried to stay within the bounds of what has already happened in Earth’s history or we have a pretty good scientific idea is possible. Nonetheless some of these are rather speculative. I have stayed within the present, the Sun’s ultimate demise or the heat death of the Universe aren’t something we need to be worried about in the near future.
Speaking of worrying, I have ranked them roughly in order of magnitude, from least to worst. I actually wrote this list some years ago, I see now that others have touched on the idea. History channel has apparently been running a show on mega disasters, and here is another author’s idea of the ten worst list. Mine is a little different than his. Some of my items are a little depressing or disturbing I suppose, read at your own risk…
The Top Ten Very Bad Things
1. Mad Scientists/terrorism. In the movies terrorists and mad scientists threaten to blow up the earth all the time. In real life, the threat posed by same is considerably more modest. Terrorists have killed very few people in history, governments and run of the mill criminals kill far more. The typical person is more likely to be hit by a bus. And while the means to commit mass carnage do exist, they are still under the control of governments, not terrorists.
So for now, I regard this as a modest threat. Not impossible, but unlikely. There are theoretical and speculative ways that a nut could build a WMD in their garage. This day could even come tomorrow I suppose, and that’s why this item makes the list.
2. Greenland and/or the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) collapse into the ocean, raising the world’s sea levels by feet or tens of feet in a matter of days or less. This would be a global calamity of terrible proportions, even if people were able to escape the rapidly rising waters, millions or more would likely die in the subsequent world wide depression and/or war. How likely is this to occur in our lifetimes? Who knows, but unfortunately the odds are rising. For now though I will leave it near the bottom of the list, I wouldn’t want to be accused of being alarmist. I mean, this calamity is a consequence of global warming…
3. Emergent diseases. Could some terrible contagious form of Ebola or a mutant fatal flu emerge tomorrow and kill a huge proportion of the human race while we were still trying to name the disease? You betcha. And it doesn’t even have to be a human disease, a fatal rice, wheat, or cattle disease would have pretty much the same effect. (Best not to even think about a barley or hops plague.) How likely is this? It’s inevitable. Does this mean we’re screwed? Probably. On the plus side, we have legions of medical personnel constantly on guard against this calamity. So if you know a doctor, your odds are better.
4. War. Yes, the second of the four horsemen makes the list. Is war likely to do us in? No, most of us will die in our sleep. And historically wars barely even make a blip on the death radar. Still, large wars can be locally very bad, the tens of millions of people who died in world war two would not be consoled knowing they were but a blip on the radar. The good news? This is the last item on the list where an individual can greatly increase their individual chance of survival. If there is a big war…stay a good distance away from it. See, easy? After this it gets a lot harder to avoid the problems…
5. Volcano. Could a volcano spell bad news for the human race? More than one civilization has collapsed because of a volcano. The Minoans were likely done in by Thera. Krakatoa likely caused world wide calamity in 535 AD. Geologists tell of of ancient eruptions of almost unimaginable scale. Yosemite is one. A Canary Islands eruption and subsequent Atlantic wide tsunamis is another. How likely is this? Maybe tomorrow, maybe a millennium, maybe a million years.
6. Asteroid/Comet…death from above. Number 5 was death from below, there is also the possibility of death from above. How likely is it? Who knows. Things hit Earth with the power of a nuclear bomb about once a century, so eventually a city will get popped. Bigger events do happen. North America might very well have suffered massive damage for a huge impact explosion even about 11,000 years ago, killing much of the fauna of North America. Including the Clovis culture apparently. Could it happen again? Yes, but at least efforts are being made to prevent it. (There are also some more exotic ways the universe could conceivably destroy earth, I’ll cover that in a subsequent post.)
7. Methane release. Could farting cows destroy the human race? Don’t be silly, of course not. However the continental shelves contain vast amounts of methane stored in frozen methyl hydrate deposits. How stable are these deposits? Again, no one really knows, but it has been speculated that a minor increase in the ocean’s temperatures might do the trick. And if it happened all at once, things like breathing would be a problem for awhile. It’s been speculated that some of Earth’s mass extinctions were indeed caused by this type of event, research continues.
8. Doomsday device. While a nut can’t blow up the Earth…yet…concurrently some governments could do the trick. During the height of the cold war it was speculated that a cobalt nuclear device could be built so powerful and designed to create so much lethal long term fallout that it would effectively end most life on Earth if detonated. There’s even rumours that the USA and the Soviet Union actually deployed these devices in the sixties. We can only hope that no government ever gets so paranoid that they would want to do something like this, and that if any devices ever were built, they have been safely deactivated.
9. Aliens. Could aliens destroy the Earth? Certainly. While it seems increasingly unlikely that aliens exist in our part of the universe, if they did exist and wanted to harm us, it would be simple for a starfaring race. A modest chunk of rock accelerated to a modest fraction of the speed of light would do the trick. We wouldn’t see it coming and it would all be over so fast that we wouldn’t notice. Fortunately the fact that I am writing this and you are reading it indicates the odds are good that there are no nearby aliens with hostile intent. (Or maybe they are just waiting for us to fatten ourselves up properly before harvest.)
10. Strange Matter Experiments. Scientists are building increasingly large machines to produce increasingly exotic forms of matter that haven’t existed since the first few moments after the Big Bang. It has been seriously suggested that we risk creating matter or altering reality in such a way that it might have global consequences. Earth crushed to the size of a pinhead for example, or matter destabilized so that the elements that make up matter simply dissolve. Again, we would have no warning, the effects from such an accident would likely propagate at the speed of light, destroying Earth and possibly much more. Even the entire universe as we know it could be destroyed. Yikes.
How likely is this? Not very scientists assure us. And we can see a pretty big chunk of the universe now, and it’s looking pretty stable. Still, it does unnerve me a bit that humans are conducting experiments that could conceivably destroy the universe, however unlikely it may be.
Tomorrow I’ll look at some of the more exotic possibilities that didn’t make this list. Sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite!
(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It is not being used for profit and is central to illustrating the post. My efforts to determine who the copyright holder is have failed, if anyone knows I will properly attribute it or remove it as the case may be.)