Predicting The End of the World With Science | Environment
Hypothetically speaking, if a nearby star were to go supernova, it could eventually reach our blue planet and rip apart our atmosphere. Complex life would cease to exist. That scenario is unlikely says Dr. Dirk Schulze-Makuch, professor of astrobiology at Washington State University. That’s one of nine of possible ways Earth could meet its doom, and there’s only so much we can do about it.
His new book, “Megacatastrophes!”, co-written with David Darling, explores scientific realities we face and how we can simply be aware of them.
First and foremost, Schulze-Makuch and Darling are scientists. They ignore the pop culture paranoia of zombie apocalypse and the ominous Mayan calender. Schulze-Makuch even says that scenario is nonsense. The two writers discuss the realistic scenarios humans face from asteroid impacts, nano-technology to global pandemic.
“I’m not the prophet,” Schulze-Makuch said. “We look at different scenarios and we basically prioritize how dangerous it is and how disastrous it would be.”
Would the scenario result in a million dead or even a billion dead? Schulze-Makuch says a pandemic tops the list with diseases like the Spanish Flu or Black Death. With passenger flights crossing oceans and country borders, disease has no boundaries.
“We don’t have anything to fight it anymore. It is bound to happen,” Schulze-Makuch explained.
He says survival depends on your genetic makeup. There are only so many people that end up being resistant to a certain disease. You might think twice about that anti-bacterial soap that kills not only the bad bacteria, but also the good bacteria that helps you fight sickness.
“We use antibiotics for everything. We put it in cows so they produce more milk. If our antibodies don’t work anymore, the chances of a pandemic is much higher,” Schulze-Makuch said.
But Schulze-Makuch thinks the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is on top of things in that department. To stay prepared for those situations, he recommends staying engaged with your community and government agencies. The last thing you want to do is embrace paranoia, but if that’s not enough, you can lay claim of a remote island, distant from air travel.
A remote island won’t shield you from an asteroid impact though. That’s one topic Schulze-Makuch even discusses with his astrobiology courses at WSU, but he stresses there’s still no immediate danger and it’s unlikely any of these scenarios will happen anytime soon.
Some current events play into the same ball park as Schulze-Makuch's scenarios. An asteroid discovered last year was thought to pose a threat to Earth in 28 years, but NASA says the odds are slim. According to the Toirino Impact Hazard Scale, asteroid 2011 AG5 is rated as 1, the least hazardous rating.
The planet skipped out on a more immediate threat on Thursday. Our solar system's Sun whipped up a powerful sun storm sending solar flares in our direction. NASA says the geomagnetic storm could have been more severe, disrupting communications, global positioning systems and power grids. The result of the storm means a higher chance of brighter auroras seen in lower latitudes. National Geographic says the sun hasn’t reached peak activity for this solar cycle so there could be even more flares to come.
Our cell phones that we hold dear to our hearts and ears, could have been deemed useless if the solar flares had been worse, Schulze-Makuch suggested. He says this is a real danger that doesn’t happen all the time, but it could.
This is where awareness comes back into play. Just knowing the danger is out there, could prevent these issues by shielding electronics better and making systems more robust so there’s no single point of failure.
“If we are aware of the dangers,” Schulze-Makuch says while explaining the other side of the coin regarding nano-technology. "While it’s useful in medicinal applications, humans don’t have natural defense mechanisms if something goes wrong."
Of all the disasters that could sweep over the planet, Schulze-Makuch says global warming or another ice age gives our species the best chance of survival.
“I think humans are pretty adaptable. We had an ice age before. It was challenging to the human species, but we survived,” he said.
Though the human species could survive that scenario, he added that everything has its lifetime, our planet and our Sun.
“In a billion years, we will lose our atmosphere,” Schulze-Makuch said. “There won’t be any life on Earth anymore.”
Though we won’t be alive to see it, the thought of our species’ mortality sounds daunting. Schulze-Makuch offers one survival tip that could be mean an extension of our civilization’s life-span: space.
Exploring Mars is just the start he explains. If humans spread out past our planet, we lessen our vulnerability to the scenarios he spells out in “Megacatastrophes!”.
“Megacatastrophes!” is being released online on April 1st and will be available in some U.S. bookstores starting on April 15th. You can find the titles of other books and publications Schulze-Makuch has written online at his WSU faculty page. He first published "Life in the Universe: Expectations and Constraints" in 2004.
WSU News: For video on Dr. Dirk Schulze-Makuch explaining his new book to Washington State University, you can learn more about it here.