Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Pray for an Asteroid

On the morning of February 15, 2013, a 500-ton meteor entered the atmosphere somewhere near the Ural mountains, in the vicinity of Chelyabinsk, Russia, an industrial city of over a million. The intensity of the blast was estimated at around 500 kilotons of TNT equivalent, or 30 nuclear bombs of the type the Americans dropped on Nagasaki, Japan. The shock waves from the sonic boom it created blew out numerous windows. Around a thousand people were wounded, mostly with lacerations from flying glass; 40 of them remain hospitalized. The damage is being estimated at over one billion rubles ($33 million USD). Over 24,000 workers and volunteers, coordinated by Russia's Emergency Ministry, went to work on the clean-up. Their specific emphasis was on keeping buildings from freezing (the temperature in Chelyabinsk is around -20ºC). By February 17 much of the damage had been repaired. Schools, hospitals and other pubic buildings had their windows replaced and were reopened. The government is supplying replacement windows to residential buildings.

There was, by all appearances, no panic of any sort. Quite the opposite: the Internet instantly filled up with pictures, videos and tweets of the light show and the percussion that followed. Then came the jokes: one was that Chelyabinsk residents detonated something and claimed it was an asteroid to get the government to provide them with replacement windows. A major television channel was successfully spoofed into accepting as real a video of what was supposedly the impact crater. Supposed bits of the meteor (which were only recovered on February 17) instantly appeared for sale. Some of the observers seemed positively giddy, describing how the shockwave made them jump, discussing how the object in question must have been traveling at supersonic speeds, then going on to estimate distances based on the lag time between the flash and the shock wave. In all, the reaction and the response could perhaps be best characterized by what is currently a very popular word in Russia: “adequate.”

By a complete coincidence, on that same day the Earth was buzzed by a much bigger body: an asteroid, nicknamed 2012 DA14. Coming from a different direction, it came closer to Earth than the ring of geostationary weather and communications satellites that hover in fixed positions over the equator 35,786 km above the planet, and could have caused far more extensive damage—similar to that caused by the one that exploded over Tunguska, Russia, in 1908, which is the largest meteor event in recorded history. (If it seems like Russia gets more than its fair share of cosmic debris, that's because it's big: try to hit the Earth from space, and you are likely to hit the ocean, but, failing that, you are quite likely to hit Russia.) But the coincidences don't end there: there was also a meteor seen over Ufa, Russia, on the 12th, and another one over Japan on the the 14th. There was another flash in the sky that rattled windows reported on the 12th near Cienfuegos, Cuba, and another on the 15th near San Francisco. Are we being bombarded from outer space? Is someone out there throwing rocks at us, from different directions? Let there be no rest for the conspiracy theorists!

Asteroids are exciting, because they are part of a small class of singular events capable of dramatically altering the course of history. There is nuclear war, followed by nuclear winter—but we like to think that we have nuclear war somewhat under control, simply because nuclear weapons make for good defense (deterrence) but bad offense, because nuclear confrontations offer no winning strategies for anyone. Then there are the massive volcanic eruptions, like the ones that triggered the Little Ice Age, which began quite suddenly between AD 1275 and 1300. We don't control these at all, of course, but we sometimes get some advance warning, and the events themselves can be arbitrarily nasty without being mysterious. Then there are pandemics like the Bubonic Plague which wiped out a third of Europe's population; their unpredictability provides some amount of excitement, plus epidemiologists tell us that their likelihood keeps rising, giving them an aura of inevitability. Less inevitable but also very nasty are solar storms that fry all of our electronics and take down the electric grid, while a supernova within the Earth's galactic neighborhood would be even nastier, potentially sterilizing the entire planet.

So much for unpredictable, history-altering, cataclysmic events. But there are a couple more—ones we can predict with complete accuracy and confidence. Let's start with the smaller one: there are 437 operational nuclear reactors in the world. These sometimes produce electricity (and steam for industrial and residential uses) but they always require electricity to run the cooling pumps, or they overheat and explode, like Fukushima Daiichi in Japan did. If they cannot get electricity from the grid, then they have to make their own, using diesel generators on site. And if these generators run out of diesel, then the reactors and the spent fuel pools all melt down and generate a radioactive plume that poisons the surrounding area for generations. The problem is that there probably isn't enough diesel to keep them supplied over the decades it would take to shift all of the nuclear waste into dry cask storage and bury the casks in tunnels in geologically stable rock that will at some remote date enter a subduction zone and melt safely into the Earth's mantle. Since we really don't want there to be 437 Fukushima Daiichi's, it would make sense for us to get cracking on the problem of eliminating these reactors from the face of the earth; but are we doing that? Of course not! We are extending the lifetimes of the existing reactors, and even building a few new ones.

And now we come to the really important cataclysmic event that at this point seems all but unavoidable: the effect of chemical changes to the atmosphere caused by the burning of fossil fuels. Scientists have reached a consensus that anything beyond a 2ºC rise in average global temperature will put the Earth's climate in an unknown state, but probably one that is not conducive to our continued existence. Beyond that point, various tipping points are reached, causing positive feedback loops that can quickly take the climate very far from the homeostatic equilibrium we have enjoyed thoughout our history as a species: glaciers melt inundating coastal cities where much of the population lives; droughts parch farmland causing famines; extreme weather events cause ever greater damage to our infrastructure. A temperature rise in excess of 2ºC all but assures a planet that our children will not be able to live on. It will be a planet that we will not be around to not recognize. Now, it turns out that to avoid exceeding the 2ºC budget, we have to stop burning fossil fuels—all of them, and not at some point in the future, but right now. And not gradually taper down our use or attempt to shift to renewables over time, but cold turkey. All oil refineries, all gas distribution networks, all coal-fired power plants have to be shut down immediately; but are we doing that? Of course not! We are doing all we can to ramp up production of fossil fuels, to restore economic growth. As I write this, Bill McKibben and numerous protesters are gathered at the White House protesting the plans for the XL pipeline. I applaud the effort, but that's one pipeline out of how many?

It seems that we can't help ourselves at all, can we? But we can still hope. It seems like asteroids can potentially fix things for us. I would venture to guess that a series of good-sized asteroid impact craters around the world's financial and industrial centers would pretty much cancel the rest of the fossil fuel-burning extravaganza, saving the planet for our children (the few who will survive the transition to life without fossil fuels). This may seem to you like a raw deal, but then what's the alternative? Peaceful protest? Or would you like to try some more civil disobedience? There isn't any time for any of that left, you know; 2ºC is already baked in, and we are now working on something that goes beyond unpleasant and is starting to border on lethal.

But does hoping for a global fix to our fossil fuel predicament to rain down on us from heaven amount to hoping against hope? It is rational to hope for things that have a finite, non-negligible likelihood, but the likelihood of such a “solution” from outer space is unknowable. Rather, what we should do is pray. Now, it is well known that even avowed atheists resort to prayer under certain circumstances: mostly when they think they are going to die. Not all people are capable of such a realization, preferring to remain delusional, but I would like to think that you, dear reader, are sufficiently far-sighted and diligent in researching catastrophic climate change to realize that that is indeed the case: if the fossil fuel-burning machine isn't shut down now, you are facing extinction within just a few generations. It doesn't seem to matter how you pray or what deity or deities you pray to. What matters is that, through prayer, you take the locus of control over your destiny somewhere far outside your puny, helpless person and place it somewhere else—perhaps in the strange benevolence of nature that allows us to survive in spite of our best efforts. In so doing, you may find inner peace, and sometimes even the strength to survive.

And so, let us pray. Let us pray that a fix will show up before it is too late for us and for life on Earth as we know it. Clearly, we can't bring ourselves to do what's needed, which is to stop ourselves in our tracks no matter the immediate consequences. Let us therefore pray that there is a force somewhere in the universe, beyond our control, that can do that for us. And let us pray that we will be able to recognize it when it shows up, and that we will have the presence of mind to not fight it. If we can't win the battle for survival, then let's try going down in defeat.

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Unknown said...

Glad no commercial nuclear power plants were built here in Australia. Dodged that bullet.

I doubt we'll get a cataclysmic event, a return to the hothouse conditions earth normally has is more common. And any die-off will be minor compared to what Gaia does every now and then, like the Great dying (late permian extinction).

Sorry if this is a double post,

John D. Wheeler said...

I think no deus ex machina is necessary. With the minimum marginal price required to profitably pump oil rapidly approaching the maximum price that can be paid without collapsing the economy, I think a rapid drop off in all industrial activity is quite near, especially when you factor in the probability of cascading bank failures and national defaults. And there is always mass starvation and drug immune pathogens to fall back on, too.

kleymo said...

What we stand to lose:


g-minor said...


Thank you.

Were you on your boat in Boston Harbor when Winter Storm Nemo hit? If so, is there anything of general interest to say about it?


Stanislav Datskovskiy said...

Dmitri, why an asteroid rather than a nukefest? I've always thought that nukefests were more picturesque.

And why hurry the Grim Reaper, at any rate? We'll all get to the end of the line soon enough.

Wolfgang Brinck said...

Excellent post as usual. Re attempts to engineer the future in the direction that we deem to be positive, I think that is where religious thinkers have come up with a variety of responses. Specifically, there is the notion that we don't know what God or the gods want or think is good for the universe and that we should surrender to what he/she/they dish up for us. Whatever happens, according to this way of thinking is ultimately for the best, only we can't see it because we lack the big picture.
There is also the Indian goddess Kali who is in charge of destruction. The Indians apparently have figured out that sometimes, the only way out of a dead end is to blow the whole thing up and start over.
Are we at such a place? I don't know, but a certain amount of fatalism might be in order.
A few years back after reading a book on species extinction, I was discussing the periodicity of these events with my wife and we decided to have a pre-extinction party. Great fun was had by all. Have your own party while you can still get champagne at the corner market.

Andy Brown said...

Individually, humans are capable of great wisdom, insight and initiative. Collectively, as a species we have the intelligence of a particularly toxic stain of lichen.

Shadowfax said...

Common misconception that a solar storm would destroy electronics as well as take down the grid.Only the grid would go down from massive surges on power lines taking out transformers.Electronics would be safe if not plugged in.
You need an EMP let off over head to take out any electronics.
Not to say losing the grid is not a problem!

dragonfly said...

Great essay. Yes we are in a climate death spiral and world leaders are doing nothing about it. It seems to be exponentiating much more rapidly than any scientists had previously thought. They still haven't factored in the effects of methane. So computer models of global warming can't represent a true picture.
Also, it seems that we are moving though a cloud of space debris as there has been an increase in fireball sightings in the past year or so. *sigh*
If the thunder don't get ya then the lighning will...

dragonfly said...

Climate change is in a death spiral. Nobody doin nothin about it. And really, what can O-bomb-a do?
It's up to individuals to turn stuff off and get on their bikes.
Also, we seem to be moving through a cloud of space debris given the increase of fireball sightings in recent months.
In the immortal words of Dr. Smith "We're doomed! We're dooomed! Woe is me! Woe woe is me!

anna west said...

I agree with John in that the wind up of industrial civilization is already here. I just want to be sure that all the people campaigning for the end to Keystone XL and the other pipelines really understand what is at stake. If they do then they have my admiration. If not, then they really ought to. I strongly believe many of them don't clearly understand that they are removing the life blood of what sustains them and everyone they care about. There is no alternate utopia with electric cars and glasses of wine and sending out community minded missives on the internet from their local coffee shop. There will be the rapid development of chaos and abject misery along with more disruption, anguish and change than most people can bear. To accept that because the earth and it's other various animal inhabitants need it to survive is one thing. To bring it on because you think there's some alternate world run by clean energy is another.
I'm here in the world of the oil sands (Alberta) and I can tell you that they wouldn't be there if there was a choice. The other stuff is clearly declining at such a rate that soon we will begin to notice. Nothing, not wind, not solar, not green algae or any other kind of wishful thinking will take it's place. For anyone that chooses to fight these battles they should at least now what they're fighting to bring on, which 'm not entirely convinced they do. The question of whether our foolishness and greed will determine the outcome faster than trying to bring it on independently is still one that seems to me, likely but then, who knows?

Unknown said...

Mr. Orlov,

Thank you. It is vital that sane voices are speaking out. We are being deafened by the cacophony of medicine shows selling hopium, meanwhile the planet fries. We may well have crossed the event horizon on the climate issue as positive feedbacks are already beginning to rear their ugly head.

Best Regards,


Laureli said...

Things are so weird... then you write this post about praying for something cataclysmic like an asteroid to stop man's descent into self-made hell.
The first thing that popped into my mind was something in the Bible about a mountain falling to earth called "Wormwood" that poisons 1/3 of the waters on earth, burns 1/3 of the grass and trees, and kills off 1/3 of the people. It is supposed to be prophetic! If the Bible is true, then that's only part of what we have to look forward to. I would like to see the end of our future misery but I can't bring myself to pray for such an end. I'd go for the EMP before nature going it's course...
Thanks for writing and speaking out, Dmitry, I appreciate your candor and insights, and always look forward to what you have to say next. I would rather concentrate on the financial implications of our demise - this topic is really too painful.

simon.dc3 said...

hi Dmitry,

Seen your post on praying-as-last-resort, I'd like to share a deeply shocking realization dawning on me over these past few days.
This realization: that hubris is the cause of our predicament. That hubris has been the cause of the predicament and collapse of those who came before us.

Hubris blinds us while leading us right into collapse by interfering with our perception of reality and distorting our sense of place within the ecos.

Hubris gets us thinking we're separate and different from the rest of the biosphere. Hubris feeds us that our might and power is unmatched by anything in the ecos.

In this hubris-induced mythos of our greatness the ecos is inanimate with no value, priced only for our use and profit.
At that moment hubris severs us from our place in a self-sustaining, resilient, ever-evolving planet-wide biome and turns us into a parasitic tumor instead. A cancer seeking growth-for-growth's-sake, knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Hubris becomes a non-stopping positive feedback loop the moment we as a tribe are able to continually monetize any bit of the ecos.
From there it only increases, permeating not just the tribe but society and then the whole civilization. The brighter we are the more susceptible to hubris we are; again, a positive feedback loop.

THAT is where we are right now.
The same place all those that left ruins before us walked on...and failed.

And as wiser others have said, predicaments have no solutions only consequences.

But why? Why, after the last 17 civilizations (that we know of) failing and collapsing, must we repeat this pattern?

Could it be that in our growth in complexity we're only reflecting the mandate of simpler lifeforms like that brewer's yeast in the casket? Reproduce, consume and pollute until there's no place to grow into, no consumable resource and no sink empty of pollution.

ahh WTF, this rant too is likely hubris.

Take care, always look forward to your posts.

Gail Zawacki said...

Thanks Dmitri for this essay, I really enjoyed it, in my gallows humor way, which is pretty much all I have these days!

Anna West asked whether the Keystone XL protesters understand the transformation that would be required if we burning fuels for energy. I was one of them, and I agree with you Anna - there's nothing to replace the concentrated power of fossilzed sunlight, certainly no technological fix that can be deployed in time. Even more important, collectively, there is no interest in admitting we have a problem with climate change and pollution.

But I am in the tiny minority of environmental activisits. Most of them fervently believe (key word) that "another world is possible".

Our leadership can barely contain their contempt for advocates of substantive change. I wrote a couple of posts with pictures of the rally here: http://witsendnj.blogspot.com/

Unknown said...

And how about this for scary: In his last book, Vultures Picnic, Greg Palast is pretty certain most (all?) the diesel generators in nuclear plants will fail. Seems they're just modified ship generators which are designed to slowly come up to power and once warmed up/conditioned, take on the load. These generators are not designed to be turned on and immediately take on a 100% load, particularly for any length of time.

Of course, we don't really know: they don't test the generators supplying sufficient cooling to the plants. The "tests" are just brief affairs to demonstrate they will start up and run.

Greenwood said...

"...The first thing that popped into my mind was something in the Bible about a mountain falling to earth called "Wormwood" that poisons 1/3 of the waters on earth, burns 1/3 of the grass and trees, and kills off 1/3 of the people. It is supposed to be prophetic..."

Name origin of Chernonbyl
The city name comes from a combination of chornyi (чорний, black) and byllia (билля, grass blades or stalks); hence it literally means black grass or black stalks. It is named after the Ukrainian word for the plant wormwood. Wormwood which is used in absinth grows abundantly in the Chernobyl area. Folk etymologies have appeared after the 1986 nuclear incident, which represent attempts to link the accident to prophecies in the Book of Revelation in the Christian New Testament

Laureli said...

"Name origin of Chernonbyl
The city name comes from a combination of chornyi (чорний, black) and byllia (билля, grass blades or stalks); hence it literally means black grass or black stalks. It is named after the Ukrainian word for the plant wormwood. Wormwood which is used in absinth grows abundantly in the Chernobyl area. "

I've heard that before, but I have read that Chernobyl does NOT mean Wormwood in Russian OR Ukrainian (Dmitry, you could verify this).
Taken from WordIQ Dictionary/Advanced Encyclopedia online:

Name Origin', "The city is named after the chornobyl' grass, or mugwort. The word itself is a combination of chornyi (чорний, black) and byllia (билля, grass blades or stalks), hence it literally means black grass or black stalks. ", '
Sometimes it is erroneously translated as wormwood (Artemisia absinthium), with consequent apocalyptic associations, probably originating from a New York Times article by Serge Schmemann, Chernobyl Fallout: Apocalyptic Tale, July 25, 1986. There, an unnamed "prominent Russian writer" was quoted as claming the Ukrainian word for wormwood was chernobyl.

Actually, the Ukrainian Чорнобиль (chornobyl) and its Russian equivalent Чернобыльник (chernobylnik) refer to the plant mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris). Wormwood is a different plant, Artemisia absinthium, Полин in Ukrainian and Полынь in Russian (both pronounced Polyn). "Polyn" has no English equivalent, but corresponds to the botanical genus Artemisia. Botanically, mugwort is "Common Polyn" (Ukr. Полин звичайний / Rus. Полынь Обыкновенная); while wormwood is "Bitter Polyn" (Ukr. Полин гіркий / Rus. Полынь горькая).

Chornobyl bears poetic connotations in folklore, for a number of reasons. Various species of Artemisia are common in steppes, and its strong smell is a often token of steppe. Also, chornobyl roots were used in folk medicine to heal neurotic conditions, but its overdose could lead to psychical distress, including memory loss.

Anyway, I don't see how a nuclear accident could be mistaken for a "mountain falling to earth". That sounds more like an asteroid to me.
At any rate, the things that are changing, and events no one can predict (sunspot CME's, super volcano eruption, earthquakes, a rampant plague, cataclysmic weather events or an asteroid hit), any of them could be 10x worse than an economic meltdown or decline of empire. At least we can do something to survive economic and/or energy decline - like raise chickens and grow food to offset some costs of living or worst case, survive. At least we have warning of what's coming in that and a chance to prepare mentally as well as in whatever physical ways we can. Unlike a die-off caused by an asteroid. However I take Dmitry's point, in praying for an asteroid, in that there may be little worth living for, the devastation of our future consequences could be too much to bear.