Forget Global Warming, The Sky Really Could Fall
One of the things that has been obscured by all the hand wringing and arm waiving about global warming is the existence of a threat to our planet that is very real and could arise suddenly. That threat is from non-planetary bodies within the solar system: asteroids, comets and other celestial wanderers. While the world's politicians and tree-hugging blowhards rail about the damage climate change might cause, a symposium was held in San Francisco to address a problem that actually could end life on Earth.
At a symposium during the annual meeting of the AAAS Pacific Division, former US astronauts Rusty Schweickart and Edward Lu stated that the threat of a devastating impact from an unknown asteroid is quit possible, even probable. They further emphasized that the time to plan and prepare is now. What's lacking, they said, is political recognition that asteroids will periodically threaten Earth in the future. Furthermore, Schweickart and Lu suggested that technology is already available that would allow humans to closely track such an asteroid and to redirect its orbit if a collision appeared likely.
Scientists are convinced that such collisions have changed the course of terrestrial life in the past. The Chicxulub impact, now enshrined in textbooks and the public mind as the “asteroid that killed the dinosaurs,” is probably the best know impact induced catastrophe. This most famous extinction was also the most recent: the K-T or end-Cretaceous Extinction, 65 million years ago. Because it was the most recent extinction event, scientists know more about the K-T event than the other great extinctions. The subject of innumerable books and TV shows, most people know the story of the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs. What most people don't know is that, along with the dinosaurs, 85% of all species on Earth vanished during that time.
In 1990, a team of scientists found conclusive evidence of a well-hidden 110 mile (180 kilometer) wide crater overlapping the seafloor and coast of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. Named the Chicxulub Crater after a nearby village, it was made by a Mt. Everest-size object impacting Earth right at the time of the K-T boundary. Previously, Walter Alvarez and his father, Nobel Prize wining physicist Luis Alvarez, had proposed just such an impact based on finding a layer of iridium enriched sediment at the K-T boundary in several different places around the globe. In 2008, in part for this discovery, Walter Alvarez won the Vetlesen Prize—geology's closest equivalent to a Noble Prize (see “What Catastrophe Awaits?”).
Many scientists believe that asteroid impacts were involved in several of the other six great extinctions that life has endured since the beginning of the Phanerozoic Eon, some 545 million years ago. The end-Triassic Extinction, 199 mya, doesn't get much press, coming on the heels of the worst ever extinction (the Permian-Triassic 251 mya), and before the dramatic meteorite impact that extinguished the dinosaurs. As we reported in Chapter 6 of The Resilient Earth, “Ancient Extinctions,” at least two impact craters have been found from around the time of this extinction. One is in Western Australia, where scientists have discovered the faint remains of a 75 mile (120 km) wide crater. The other is a 212 million year old crater in Quebec, Canada, forming part of the Manicouagan Reservoir. The Manicouagan impact structure is one of the largest impact craters still visible on the Earth's surface, with an original rim diameter of approximately 62 miles (100 km).
The Manicouagn impact crater in Canada. Source NASA.
“What do we do when we find one with our name on it?” asked Schweickart. “It's going to be very important to build public confidence when, 20 years from now, we discover a Near-Earth Object where there's one-in-10 chance that it will hit the Earth,” he added. “That's going to send a panic around the world. At that point, it will be very important to persuade the public that these scientists know what they're doing and can succeed.”
Because every nation on Earth could be affected, and because national interests and abilities are so diverse, preventing future impacts should be a front burner geo-political issue. I would like to know why President Obama was not in attendance at the conference. After all, asteroid collision is a threat that we know has happened in the past, with devastating impact on all earthly lifeforms at the time. Where were the president's science advisers? Does the administration even have a policy regarding this potentially disastrous situation?
Instead, we see the world's politicians preparing to make the pilgrimage to Copenhagen for the UN Climate Change Conference, scheduled to take place December 7th through 18th. Those backing the conference include American President Barak Obama, fresh off his humiliating rebuff by the International Olympic Committee's site selection, Chinese President Hu Jintao, and UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown. The official host of the meeting in Copenhagen is the government of Denmark represented by Connie Hedegaard, the Danish minister of Climate and Energy and Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen. The conference is the the winter political season's must attend party—be there or find yourself out of the media spotlight (something no politician can abide).
The actual conference promises to mark a major attempt at a comeback for the supporters of anthropogenic global warming. AGW has been taking a real pummeling lately, with the announcement that global temperatures have not been increasing for the past decade and a number of scientists expressing skepticism about the UN back hypothesis. In a foreshadowing of the type of overheated rhetoric likely to typify the proceedings, UK PM Gordon Brown warned that the world is on the brink of a “catastrophic” future of killer heatwaves, floods and droughts unless governments speed up negotiations on climate change before vital talks in Copenhagen in December. According to Brown:
In every era there are only one or two moments when nations come together and reach agreements that make history, because they change the course of history. Copenhagen must be such a time. There are now fewer than 50 days to set the course of the next 50 years and more.
If we do not reach a deal at this time, let us be in no doubt: once the damage from unchecked emissions growth is done, no retrospective global agreement in some future period can undo that choice. By then it will be irretrievably too late.
Evidently the bombastic Mr. Brown sees for himself a green path to salvation, much like the one followed by Al Gore after his ultimate political failure. Not to be outdone, two British Cabinet ministers, Foreign Secretary David Miliband and his brother, Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Miliband, showed off a doomsday vision of disappearing cities and rising seas. One wonders how many ecological prophets the planet can bear. This is part of the effort to frighten and intimidate nations into signing a new pact limiting CO2 emissions. All of this is taking place as a blue ribbon panel is preparing to tell NASA not to build its new moon rocket—a vehicle that could be indispensable in any effort to redirect a planet killing asteroid in the future.
The review panel claims that NASA doesn't have nearly enough money to meet its goals and one of the cost saving options is pulling the plug on the Ares I rocket. NASA has been working on the Ares I for four years. The giant rocket booster is supposed to replace the space shuttle, which is scheduled to have its final flight in late 2010. Billions have already been spent on the rocket, but not as much as NASA's GISS has spent constructing inaccurate climate models in order to promote the myth of global warming [for details on just how inaccurate those models are see “Seven Climate Models, Seven Different Answers,” or Chapter 14 of The Resilient Earth, “The Limits of Climate Science”].
As I have said before, it always amazes me that many who call themselves ecologists or eco-friendly harbor such animosity for humankind, all the while bestowing upon humanity powers of destruction far beyond our actual capabilities. Those who value the well being of animals, fish and even plants above their fellow Homo sapiens are legion: Green Peace, fruitarians, Peta, militant vegetarians and the human extinction movement to name a few.
Along with discounting the worth of human life, these same characters often claim that humans are destroying all life on Earth: either intentionally, accidentally or just by existing at all. Here is a little something to put human caused climate change's destructive powers in perspective—something that has happened before and will undoubtedly happen again.
Consider the predicted effects of global warming: ice caps may shrink, oceans may rise a few inches and average temperatures increase a couple of degrees. Which threat seems more dire, global warming or global extinction?
No matter, Copenhagen will serve as notice to the citizens of the world that the IPCC and its climate change catastrophists will not go away quietly. We can look forward to more outbreaks of unsubstantiated claims, more proclamations of pending disaster, with every upward tick of the thermometer and every calving glacier. Skeptics, be forewarned—this fight is far from over. In climate science, as in politics, being in the wrong is no reason to give up—the global warming scaremongers will be back.
Be safe, enjoy the interglacial and stay skeptical.