Countdown to Doom

E-mail Stephanie vL Henkel

First, did you read Tom Kevan's commentary, "Space Exploration—a Question of Perspective"? Next, did you watch "Last Days on Earth," on ABC TV Wednesday might? Good! Then I won't be shaking you out of a cheery humor. Who needs sensors anyhow? Only humankind.

What Natural Forces Could Do to Us
Let's have a swift review of that alarming two-hour program. The following entries are presented in ascending order of horror or likelihood.

7. A mega burst of gamma radiation from a nearby dying star; alternatively, a nomadic black hole that comes to visit

6. Artificial intelligence, in the form of massively intelligent computers taking over most everything we need to do and generally running the show in way we might not like (think HAL)

5. Super volcanoes that dwarf all in recorded history; there's a monster magma chamber under Yellowstone that's overdue to let go

4. An Earth-asteroid collision of the same magnitude as the one that wiped out most existing terrestrial animal life and allowed mammals to rule

What We Could Do to Ourselves
3. Nuclear war, and the ensuing "nuclear winter;" the U.S. and Russia remain at sword points, with enough armaments to dispatch 6 billion of the 6.5 billion currently inhabiting the planet

2. A pandemic that could eclipse the influenza outbreak of 1918–1919 that killed 40 million, mostly in Europe and the U.S.; the likely candidate at present is the avian flu, but a far worse scenario would be a bioengineered new strain of smallpox or Ebola

1. Global warming (saw this coming, didn't you?); the world will lose coastal territory, true, but the water wars to follow will completely change our ways of thinking about who counts and who doesn't

What We're Doing
What are we—and other industrialized countries—doing about any of this? Well, the European Space Agency will deliver a controlled crash landing on the Moon's surface today. Not to be outdone, we will punch a Big Hole in that tormented object in 2008 to see if water comes geysering out and maybe we can go live there. We're still making noises about manned explorations to Mars. We are continuing to add more bits to the International Space Station and are about to send yet another iffy space shuttle up to augment its work crew. We just threw Pluto out of our solar system because it failed to clear its own orbit, yet an intelligent probe is on its way to investigate that tiny and distant demoted object. Perhaps it will be found worthy of reinstatement.

What We Should Be Doing
As Tom Kevan pointed out, the glamour space shots (or the proposals for same) get the hogs' share of ink. The sensor-rich probes that visit places we can never travel to in the imaginable future and the faithful Earth-orbiting satellites get bupkis. As if the PR dearth weren't bad enough, we're likely to see a reduction in the number of climate-observing satellites. A new generation of weather-watchers has been bumped from 2010 to at soonest 2012. Cost overruns. Budget squeezes. Those would be helpful in accurate prediction and tracking of hurricanes. Ditto intelligent guessing how a volcano's going to behave. How about monitoring Earth's solar radiation, clouds, and water vapor from deep space? Nope. How about finding out how the oceans, permafrost, glaciers, ice sheets, and endangered species and their habitats are doing? Nope. Earth's solar radiation fluctuations, airborne particulates, precipitation types and totals, clouds, and water vapor activities? Nope. Noting cessations of activity in inhabited areas that could signal widespread disease would be mighty handy. Forget it.

So What?
Very early advisories of at least some of the seven doomsday nominees could be very helpful. And I don't mean that we all hold hands and sing "Blessed Memories." We could even deflect some of what could be on its way or devise ways to survive them in recognizable shape. Humans, cockroaches, and microbial life—an interesting future to contemplate. But until and unless we get serious about scientific evaluations of potential cataclysms—and this is going to require sensing technology from aloft as well as onboard Earth—all we can do is sit around and act like hostages. Unless you think a faith-based initiative will do the trick.

Robert Frost, the great New England poet, had to something cogent to say about How It Could End. It's worth a look, and only nine lines long.