Lessons in Humility (Part Two)

Lessons in humility ought to be learned from disasters, especially those that involve the possibility or certainty of killing us. Given the history and habits of Homo sapiens, amazingly enough some of these disasters are not our fault.

The structure of Earth, certainly not our fault, is a major cause of disaster. The layers making up our planet start at the hot core in Earth’s center, and end with the lithosphere, which is cracked, forming the tectonic plates that ride on the lower, hotter asthenosphere. This seriously abbreviated description of Earth’s fundamental geology should be augmented by reading books on the subject. I’m currently enjoying Dorrik Stow’s Vanished Ocean.

According to Isaac Asimov’s definition, the word “tectonic” comes “from a Greek word for carpenter, since the plates seemed to be cleverly joined to make a seemingly unbroken crust.” However cleverly joined, Earth’s tectonic plates are not glued together. They move, and the planet has earthquakes as a result.

Every day I look at an Internet site that shows the latest earthquakes as colored disks, most of them on the crooked fault lines around the tectonic plates. The red ones have just happened. The big ones will shortly be moaned about on the news. I recommend this practice of keeping up on earthquakes as a way of putting one’s personal problems in perspective.

If Homo sapiens were still a hunter-gatherer species, we would not suffer much from earthquakes, unless we were inside a cave that collapsed, or we fell into a sudden crack in the ground. Now, however, Earth is crowded with people, many of whom live near treacherous fault lines. Precautions are necessary, from teaching people how to cope with disaster, to constructing buildings that sway but do not crumble.

Another often unhappy result of Earth’s structure is the eruption of hellish fire and brimstone (well, it seems that way) from below the crust of the planet. People are told that it’s foolhardy to live beneath, much less on the slopes of an active volcano, but people do it anyway. This is not humility, but ignorance and/or severe psychological denial, especially when accompanied by the notion that a superhuman deity will protect you. The geological danger of a place is not your fault, but it is your fault if you choose to live there.

The position of Earth in space is another source of disasters that are not our fault. These disasters should make us humble because they are a forceful reminder that however powerful we think we are as a species, we are not safe on our beautiful planet. Although Earth often protects us adequately because it has an atmosphere and magnetic fields, there are many times when we are sitting ducks for disasters caused by stuff coming in from space.

Every day I look at the websites for space weather, too, and more often than I’d like, I wonder if I should keep my computer unplugged that day.

With so much news about asteroids, we tend to forget that an all-important source of danger to Earth from space is our own star, the Sun. Earth’s personal star is a seething, burning mass about 93 million miles away. It’s been burning brightly for almost 5 billion years, and most of life on Earth depends on it. The food chain (including life forms like molds or humans that do not photosynthesize) ultimately depends on life forms that do use sunlight to manufacture food.

There are, of course, life forms that do not exactly depend on sunlight. Everyone has heard of the marvelous deep oceanic food chains dependent on the bacteria that feed on chemicals spewing out from the vents in Earth’s crust. These, however, are dependent on being in water, which stays liquid because our Sun has not yet evaporated it (as it will—sorry about this—in another 5 billion years when it becomes a red giant star).

Our Sun not only gives us life, but also pretty sunsets and sunrises, auroras, and the gorgeous spectacle of solar flares, now easily studied and admired through modern technology. I was going to say the “miracle” of modern technology but I’m sure that would appall my present readership, as it does me. Technology is not a miracle. It is the product of human effort.

Many solar flares fall back onto the Sun, but some shoot toward Earth in what’s called an interplanetary coronal mass ejection, a fancy way of saying that the Sun is not just hiccupping, it’s giving a big burp that travels to a planet. If the planet is Earth, we can be in great danger. In 1859 a solar eruption caused a “superstorm” that knocked out telegraph communications, even giving telegraph operators electric shocks. Such an event could now bollix up our power-grid dependent civilization.

Due to the Sun’s distance and the speed of light, we have a few days warning before a big burp hits Earth, but that won’t be enough if a truly large sun-sent disaster occurs. People in the know have been urging for decades that humanity play it fail-safe and have colonies off the planet.

Colonies can be zapped, too, but we will learn how to shield them, especially the frozen embryos, sperm and eggs of humanity plus those of plants and animals we need. A Moon colony, for instance, could be so deep that it would be relatively safe. Orbital spaceships could be moved out of the way of the incoming solar disaster. Humans have already thought and written about many solutions to the problem but so far there’s no money assigned for any.

Some wise people are doing their best to protect us here on Earth by monitoring what’s going on in the Sun and what is on its way directly to Earth. Some countries intend to or are actually shutting down their orbital satellites and planet-bound power grids until the danger passes.

There is always the rare possibility of a truly nasty solar event long before the Sun goes red giant. An extreme solar eruption that vaporizes surface water could leave little life but bacteria in Earth’s crust, and they’ll have a hard time evolving. In the past, millions of years of life’s evolution took place in the oceans. We need oceans!

Cheer up. It’s probable that a planet-scouring solar flare has not happened since life began, or at least since life became multicellular and on its way to what we’d like to think of as greater glories. In spite of its occasional bad burps, our sun is a reasonably stable star.

The position of Earth in space is also responsible for the danger from other incoming objects, and I do not mean debris from man-made stuff we have put into orbit. There are many natural objects, rocky or rocky plus ice, with orbits that can bring them near or even onto Earth.

We enjoy the sight of “shooting stars” when small objects called meteors (about a billion a day) burn up as they pass through Earth’s atmosphere. Some larger meteors and small asteroids are so spectacular that they’re called fireballs. In the “Tunguska event” of June 30, 1908, a fireball explosion over Siberia knocked down miles of trees in an area fortunately empty of towns. The recent amazing fireball over Chelyabinsk, Russia, did a lot of damage and injured many people, while delighting the media.

Larger incoming space objects are much more dangerous, but, in spite of all those dinosaur bones, too many people deny the reasonable probability of something large hitting Earth. In 2029 an asteroid subtly named Apophis will come close to Earth. Thoughtful scientists say there’s more than a “miniscule” chance of that asteroid’s orbit altering just enough so that when it comes back again, in 2036, we might be sorry we didn’t listen to the doomsayers.

Think about Apophis, and all the other Earth-grazing asteroids we know are out there but have not had their paths mapped out. And when we find a space object that is big and bad and headed our way, there’s a nice emotional outlet in praying, but it’s not of practical use, except perhaps to keep sadly deluded people from killing themselves, or others, as has been done before. Unfortunately it’s all too probable that if the entire population of Earth got on its knees and prayed, whatever’s going to hit us will hit.

We can avoid disaster by nudging the object into a different path, away from Earth (not blow it up, which is a really bad idea). We have the ability to do this–it just takes funds. A penny for each member of our supposedly intelligent species would pay for avoiding doom.

We might even have money left over to start a Moon colony.