(1) Global Catastrophes


World Watch Institute - Natural Catastrophes in 2012 Dominated by U.S. Weather Extremes

Disasters and Conflicts (UNEP)


The big problem with predicting the end of the world is that, if proved right, there can be no basking in glory. This has not, though, dissuaded armies of Cassandras from predicting the demise of our planet or the human race, only to expire themselves without the opportunity to proclaim ‘I told you so’. To somewhat adapt the words of the great Mark Twain, the death of our race has been greatly exaggerated. The big question is, however, how long will this continue to be the case?

In answer, it would be perfectly reasonable to say that of course the world is going to end - in about 5 billion years time when our Sun finally runs out of fuel and swells to become a bloated red giant that burns the Earth to a cinder. On the other hand, a fervent eschatologist would undoubtedly contest this, launching into an enthusiastic account of the many alternative and imaginative ways in which our world and our race might meet its end sooner, of which disease, warfare, natural catastrophe, and exotic physics experiments gone wrong are but a selection. Given the current state of the planet you too might be forgiven for having second thoughts following such a litany - perhaps, after all, we will face ‘doom soon’ as John Leslie succinctly put it in his book The End of the World, rather than ‘doom deferred’. Against a background of accelerating global warming, exploding population, and reborn superpower militarism, it may indeed be more logical for us to speculate that the human race’s great adventure is about to end, rather than persist far into the future and across the vastness of galactic space. Somewhat worryingly, Cambridge cosmologist Brandon Carter has developed an argument that supports, probabilistically, this very thesis. His ‘doomsday argument’ goes like this. Assuming that our race grows and persists for millions or even billions of years, then those of us alive today must belong to the infinitesimally small fraction of humans living in the earliest light of our race’s dawn.

This, Carter postulates, is statistically unlikely in the extreme. It is much more probable that we are alive at the same time as, say, 10 per cent of the human race. This is another way of saying that humans will cease to exist long before they have any chance to spread across space in any numbers worth talking about. John Leslie illustrates this argument along these lines. Imagine your name is in a lottery draw, but you don’t know how many other names there are. You have reason to believe, however, that there is a 50 per cent chance that the total number is a thousand and an equal probability that the total is ten. When the tickets are drawn, yours is one of the first three. Now, there can be few people who, in such circumstances, would believe that the draw contained a thousand rather than ten tickets.

If the doomsday argument is valid – and it has withstood some pretty fierce attacks from a number of intellectual heavyweights – then we may have only a few centuries’ respite before one nemesis or another obliterates our race, our planet, or both. Despite nearly a quarter of a century in the ‘doom and disaster’ business, however, I can’t help being at least a little optimistic. Wiping out 7 billion or more people at a stroke will not be easy, and many of the so-called ‘end of the world’ scenarios are in reality no such thing, but would simply result - at worst - in a severe fall in human numbers and/or the reduction of our global, technological civilization to something far simpler and more parochial – at least for a time. Personally, therefore, I am open-minded about what Stephen Baxter calls in his novel Manifold Time the ‘Carter Catastrophe’.

There is no question that the human race or its descendants must eventually succumb to oblivion, but that time may yet be a very long way off indeed. This might be a good point to look more carefully at just what we understand by ‘the end of the world’, and how will be treating the concept. To my thinking, it may be interpreted in four different ways: (i) the wholesale destruction of the planet and the race, which will certainly occur if all the human eggs remain confined to our single terrestrial basket when our Sun ‘goes nova’ five billion years hence; (ii) the loss of our planet to some catastrophe or another, but the survival of at least some elements of our race on other worlds; (iii) the obliteration of the human race but the survival of the planet, due perhaps to some virulent and inescapable disease; and (iv) the end of the world as we know it. It is on this final scenario that I will be focusing here, and the main thrust of this book will address global geophysical events that have the potential to deal our race and our technological society a severe, if not lethal, blow. Natural catastrophes on a scale mighty enough to bring to an end our familiar world. I will not concern myself with technological threats such as those raised by advances in artificial intelligence and robotics, genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and increasingly energetic high-energy physics experiments. Neither will I address – barring global warming – attempts by some of the human race to reduce its numbers through nuclear, biological, or chemical warfare. Instead I want to introduce you to some of the very worst that nature can throw at us, either solely on its own account or with our help.

Although often benign, nature can be a terrible foe and mankind has fought a near-constant battle against the results of its capriciousness – severe floods and storms, devastating earthquakes, and cataclysmic volcanic eruptions. The terrible Asian tsunami of 26 December 2004 provided us with just a taster of the worst nature can do, destroying 400,000 buildings, killing 300,000 citizens from 40 countries - including 100,000 children - and leaving an astonishing 8 million people homeless, unemployed, and impoverished. While the scale and extent of the tsunami’s awful legacy are unprecedented in modern times, we have - on the whole - been quite fortunate, and our civilization has grown and developed against a backdrop of relative climatic and geological calm. The omens for the next century and beyond are, however, far from encouraging. Dramatic rises in temperature and sea level in coming decades induced by greenhouse gases - in combination with ever-growing populations - will without doubt result in a huge increase in the number and intensity of natural disasters.

Counter-intuitively, some parts of the planet may even end up getting much colder and the UK, for example, could - in this century - be freezing in Arctic conditions as the Gulf Stream weakens. And what exactly happened to the predicted new Ice Age? Has the threat gone away with the onset of anthropogenic (man-made) global warming or are the glaciers simply biding their time?

While rapid in geological terms, climate change is a slow-onset event in comparison with the average human lifespan, and to some extent at least its progress can be measured and forecast. Much more unexpected and difficult to predict are those geological events large enough to devastate our entire society and which we have yet to experience in modern times. These can broadly be divided into extraterrestrial and terrestrial phenomena. The former involve the widely publicized threat to the planet arising from collisions with comets or asteroids. Even a relatively small, 2-kilometre object striking the planet could be expected to wipe out around a quarter of the Earth’s population.

The potential for the Earth itself to do us serious harm is less widely documented, but the threat of a global natural catastrophe arising from the bubbling and creaking crust beneath our feet is a real and serious one. Three epic events await us that have occurred many times before in our planet’s prehistory, but which we have yet to experience in historic time. A cataclysmic volcanic super-eruption plunged the planet into a bitter volcanic winter some 74,000 years ago, while little more than 100,000 years ago gigantic waves caused by a collapsing Hawaiian volcano mercilessly pounded the entire coastline of the Pacific Ocean. Barely a thousand years before the birth of Christ, and again during the Dark Ages, much of Eastern Europe and the Middle East was battered by an earthquake storm that leveled once great cities over an enormous area. There is no question that such tectonic catastrophes will strike again in our future, but just what will be their effect on our global, technology based society? How well we will cope is difficult to predict, but there can be little doubt that for most of the inhabitants of Earth, things will take a turn for the worse.

Living on the most active body in the solar system, we must always keep in our minds that we exist and thrive only by geological accident. Recent studies on human DNA have revealed that our race came within a hair’s breadth of extinction following the unprecedented super-eruption 74,000 before present, and if we had been around 65 million years ago when a 10-kilometre asteroid struck the planet we would have vanished alongside the dinosaurs. We must face the fact that, as long as we are all confined to a single planet in a single solar system, prospects for the long-term survival of our race are always going to be tenuous. However powerful our technologies become, as long as we remain in Earth’s cradle we will always be dangerously exposed to nature’s every violent whim. Even if we reject the ‘doom soon’ scenario, it is likely that our progress as a race will be continually impeded or knocked back by a succession of global natural catastrophes that will crop up at irregular intervals as long as the Earth exists and we upon it. While some of these events may bring to an end the world as we know it, barring another major asteroid or comet impact on the scale of the one that killed the dinosaurs, the race is likely to survive and, generally, to advance. At some point in the future, therefore, we will begin to move out into space – first to our sibling worlds and then to the stars. In the current inward looking political climate it is impossible to say when a serious move into space will happen, but happen it will and when it does the race will breathe a collective sigh of relief. At last some of our eggs will be in a different basket. What happens next is anyone’s guess.

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