After all of this talk of impacts and
antipodal impact effects, some readers may be wondering about the effect of the
next significant impact.
For those readers who wonder about this
question, I would ask that they imagine that the answer below is being
delivered by comedian Gilbert Gottfried in his whiniest, most grating voice:
"Next impact? NEXT IMPACT?!
Are you crazy? Do you think we are going to be stupid enough to allow another
significant impact? If we're that stupid, then we deserve to die!"
There will be no more additional
significant cosmic impacts on planet Earth. We now have the technology needed
to find, divert and/or destroy significant cosmic objects that are on a course
to impact Earth.
The technology is not yet perfected.
But it is good enough to save us from an extinction emergency.
Let's remember that we didn't even have
the mass production methods of the industrial revolution until the 1800s. The
airplane wasn't invented until 1903. Serious guided rockets weren't invented
until World War II (by Nazi scientists).
Now we have rockets, satellites and
nuclear weapons capable of forming a last line of defense against cosmic
marauders. And the technological solutions will get better
In the meantime, even rocket-launched
nuclear weapons can greatly diminish the effects of a surprise impending cosmic
In the Hollywood asteroid disaster
movies, some scientist character always warns the heroes that it will do no
good to blow up a comet or meteor with nuclear weapons
will only cause the big object to become many smaller objects raining doom upon
nuclear weapons won't solve the problem. Only Clint Eastwood and
Bruce Willis can save us.
It is true that the best solution to a
cosmic impact problem is to force the impact object to miss the planet.
However, if this can't be done, then blowing it up into smaller pieces is a
good secondary solution.
Size matters when it comes to cosmic
impacts. Lots of littler impacts are significantly preferable to one big
impact. Littler impacts can cause local or regional devastation
nothing more. One big impact can create the kind of massive and persistent
volcanism at the antipode of the impact that will destroy the climate for
thousands of years and lead to our extinction.
Furthermore, once a big impact object
is blown up into many littler impact objects, the trajectory of many of those
littler impact objects will have been changed enough so that they either miss
the Earth or ricochet off the atmosphere. Moreover, the atmosphere will have a
greater reduction effect on each littler impact object (burning off some of the
surface and slowing it there will be more surface area exposed per pound
of object with many little ones). Any of the littler impact objects that hit in
water would be slowed more for the same reason.
As our missile defense systems become
more robust, they will become more capable of picking off the larger of the
remaining objects that would threaten the planet after the big impact object is
broken up. The missile defense systems will be developed to protect us from
enemy missiles, not large cosmic fragments. However, these missile defense
systems will be able to be pressed into service against impact fragments when
TECHNOLOGY TO THE
The geological history of the planet
teaches us that there will be more of these significant impact objects headed
our way in the future.
However, man's technology is now
capable of fending off these cosmic interlopers. In effect, the environment and
ecology of planet Earth will be protected by man's technology in a way that
nature never could.
What we have here is an "Adam Smith
meets geology" moment.
Adam Smith was the great 18th century
economist who wrote "The Wealth of Nations" in 1776. In his book he explains
how an unplanned free market economy delivers goods and services to those who
"It is not from the
benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we can expect our
dinner, but from their regard to their own interest."
In other words, the butcher and the
baker are acting out of their own self-interest. They are not part of some
grand plan to serve society. They are merely trying to serve themselves
but in the process, they serve others.
A strange, unplanned parallel situation
is about to occur in geology. It is definitely NOT the same thing as the free
enterprise system, but the nature of the unplanned benefits of technological
development shows unusual parallels with the unplanned benefits of a free
It was not the purpose of Nazi leaders
and scientists to start creating weapons that would lead to missiles that could
be used against cosmic impact objects. No, the target of their V2 rockets was
Atomic weapons were developed by the
United States in order to first compete with the Nazi nuclear threat at
Peenemunde and later to win the war against Japan.
Rocketry competition between the US and
the USSR was not designed with cosmic impact objects in mind. It was part of
the cold war's ongoing strategy of mutually assured destruction.
Missile defense systems are part of a
continuing process of development of defensive military weapons.
And yet, the final result is a system
of technology with the capability of dealing with cosmic impact objects.
Ironically, it is some of the
technology that was developed for the worst purposes that will now serve the
best interests of the planet
all of the planet.
Even though our primary aim in
protecting the planet will be to protect ourselves and our future, this
protection will automatically protect all the other life on Earth, as well.
In some ways, man's existence and his
technology will act almost like vaccine for the Earth against significant
cosmic impacts. There are some negative side effects to this human vaccine
(when we negatively affect the rest of the planet), but the side effects pale
in comparison with the environmental disaster that is the alternative (i.e.
continuing massive extinctions).
Does this unexpected technological
benefit give industry, government and individuals carte blanche to cause
environmental havoc? No. But it does clearly demonstrate that we are better off
with our modern technology than without it.
DEALING WITH HOTSPOT VOLCANISM
Even though we can argue convincingly
that the era of significant cosmic impacts is over, we still have to deal with
active existing hotspot volcanism from previous impacts, which is a problem.
Although new hotspot volcanism will not
come about (there won't be any additional significant cosmic impacts), the old
hotspots are far from tame.
Michael Rampino and Stephen Self (among
others) have suggested that the super-volcano explosion at Lake Toba on Sumatra
in Indonesia (which is the current location of the Chicxulub impact's antipodal
hotspot) just 70,000 years ago created a six to ten year volcanic winter and
may have created the "genetic bottleneck" that is indicated in the
mitochondrial DNA of humans.26
Eruptions of this magnitude can
continue at active hotspots, even though the hotspots are millions of years
old. The hotspot at Lake Toba is 65 million years old.
So, what good is it going to do us to
conquer cosmic impacts if we are just going to be destroyed by hotspot
disasters at Lake Toba, Yellowstone and other hotspot super-volcanoes?
First, let's remember that we no longer
have to worry about "rare mantle plumes" causing hotspots. Ben's Antipodal
Impact Theory says that these plumes are caused by cosmic impacts and they
occur at the antipode as a hotspot.
If we have solved the impact problem,
then we have also solved any future mantle plume or hotspot creation problems.
But what do we do about the hotspots
that already exist? The Chicxulub antipodal hotspot at Lake Toba (and many
others) isn't going away anytime soon.
Once again, the probable answer is
technology. This time the technological answer probably lies with oil drillers.
The problem with the hotspot volcanoes
is the incredible pressure that can build up. When the pressure reaches the
breaking point, the volcano explodes and creates havoc.
The answer will likely deal with the
relief of this pressure
gradually reducing the pressure through
non-catastrophic means, creating a way for the volcano to discharge its lava in
the relatively quiet, peaceful way that the volcanoes on Hawaii do.
How do we do this?
In the past few decades, oil drilling
companies have become adept at a new kind of drilling
directional) drilling. Rather than being limited to the old kind of drilling
where the oil rig had to sit right on top of the site of the oil, drillers can
now drill sideways as they drill down.
Developed in the 1980s, horizontal
drilling has now developed to such a degree that BP was able to horizontally
drill a kill well to plug the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. This
kill well precisely intersected the original bore hole deep in the Earth so
that it could be sealed with a final plug.
This horizontal drilling technique and
its new precision was unthinkable just 40 years ago.27,28
What kind of modifications would need
to be developed to drill sideways below Lake Toba to relieve the magma pressure
gradually into a nearby, unused area (i.e. the Sunda Trench)? Probably not more
modification than motivated drillers could handle, given a little time. Perhaps
they would have to combine their technologies with that of tunnel drillers in
order to create a large enough tube."
Although this technology may not be
ready right this minute, it is clearly close to what drillers are already
doing. Obviously, it would make sense to try out new pressure relief drilling
on minor volcanoes in sparsely populated areas first.
But if I were a politician in Italy who
represented the people in Naples, I would be pushing for development of this
technology so that it could be used to halt the otherwise-inevitable next
deadly eruption of Mount Vesuvius
with the potential loss of all those
lovely Neapolitan constituents.
A NEW LOOK AT ENVIRONMENTALISM
Most modern day environmentalism is
focused on fixing identified environmental problems that are perceived to have
been caused by human activity. Often the culprit in the human activity picture
turns out to be industrial activity. Sometimes it is government activity.
Sometimes it is individual activity.
But almost always it is human activity.
This focus on the environmental cost of human activity has led some people to
question whether modern industrial society is the right path for humanity. They
question the focus on material wealth, technological advancement and the
economic engine that makes it all happen. They wonder if we would be better off
without all the trappings of modern society.
And sometimes the environmental concern
goes even much farther. Some people even question whether the planet would be
better off without humans existing here at all. Hard Green, Deep Ecology, Earth
First! and the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement (VHEMT) all place the rights
of the rest of nature on an equal footing (or more!) with the rights of humans.
"As vhemt Volunteers know, the
hopeful alternative to the extinction of millions of species of plants and
animals is the voluntary extinction of one species: Homo sapiens
30 pg 1
Earth First! Has called for a return to
the Pleistocene, according to Murray Bookchin, author of "Green
Perspectives".31 pg 4
Although the philosophy of some of the
fringe environmental groups can seem rather silly, it often represents just a
much stronger version of some of the activist environmentalism today
idea that the world would be better off without modern society.
However, as we have seen from the
geological evidence, only the technology of a robust, modern society can truly
protect the planet from the otherwise-inevitable environmental disaster of
cosmic impacts and massive hotspot eruptions.
There is plenty of irony in the fact
that true, realistic, environmental protection is going to be generated from
the actions of Nazi scientists, the cold war arms race and profit-seeking oil
THE END OF UNAVOIDABLE THREATS
There is another philosophical
difference that comes out of this new look at the threats that face the human
race. We come to the realization that there are no more unavoidable threats.
Until recently, one could realistically
argue that civilization would end or our species would cease to exist someday
in the not too distant future anyway. All it would take would be an arbitrary
cosmic impact or a "rare mantle plume", as has happened in the geological past
many, many times. It was not a question of if it was going to happen
was just a question of when it was going to happen.
Now these threats are controllable.
Extinction threats like "rare mantle plumes" or arbitrary glaciation or
sea-level-lowering never really existed. The only real extinction threats were
impacts and the effects of volcanism at the antipodal hotspots. And now we can
control those problems. People can still argue about the eventual lethality of
gamma ray bursts, locally close supernovae or the sun exploding. However, these
1. Events that have never
occurred in the 4.6 billion year history of our planet (at least there is no
evidence of it).
2. Events that are not likely
to occur until billions of years from now, when our technology will be
unimaginably more capable than it is today
just as our technology today
is unimaginably more capable today than it was just 1,000 years ago.
Therefore, we can argue that man really
does have control over his inevitable fate. And that control is based upon the
robust development of modern technology.
There is a danger in letting the
Standard Theory proceed uncontested in shaping the thoughts of our citizens.
These citizens vote. If they do not understand the importance of continuing
down the path of developing a robustly energetic, technologically modern
society, they may be enchanted by lovely rhetoric about blissful but
impractical environmental nirvanas, where business, industry and technology are
legislated and regulated into a state of paralysis.
Most people have more sense than to
fall for these utopian environmental schemes, but they often lack a
justification for the sensible position that they do take. It is easy to paint
modern technology as the villain. But, as we can see by the evidence, it is
modern technology and a robust modern society that are the essential heroes.