I confess I enjoy watching doomsday shows, like History Channel's "Armageddon Week," which informs about the various catastrophic ways we will perish in the coming years. The scourges vary, from magnetic pole shifts to the end of days that was supposed to happen last year when the Mayan calendar ran out of days.
One disaster of particular interest is a potential strike by the asteroid Apophis, a monster the size of the Rose Bowl that is projected to pass within 18,300 miles of Earth on Friday the 13th, April 2029. To provide a sense of scale, that's less than twice the distance between New York City and Sydney, Australia. Thankfully, unless something nudges Apophis an infinitesimal fraction of one degree in an Earthily direction over the next 16 years, we'll avert what would otherwise be a really lousy day. Apophis will make a return visit in the year 2036.
If it was determined that Apophis was to actually strike the Earth in 2029, I can't help but wonder how we would respond to a potential extinction level event. Would CNN and Fox trot out endless pairs of polar opposite talking heads to debate whether or not the asteroid was really going to cream the planet? Would we examine the proximate cause of the asteroid smackdown and, once concluding it was the fault of nature and not man, decide that it should be permitted to freely run its apocalyptic course? If we finally accepted the overwhelming scientific evidence and acknowledged that the scientists were really right after all, would we then act decisively to save life on Earth, or would we resign ourselves that saving the world was simply too costly for business? Perhaps we would mandate that school textbooks present a sensible balance between Apocalytes and Apophiskeptics in order to maximize our children's confusion between fact and fantasy. Maybe the not-so-heavenly visitor would be interpreted as an unmistakable sign of the rapture, and, therefore interference with it would be considered sinful.
Personally, I think we would just blow the sucker up.
Ostensibly, the motivation would be to save humanity though, let's face it, if our failed attempts at enacting climate change legislation have shown us anything, it's that saving human life on Earth is hardly sufficient incentive to launch major life-saving initiatives. Clearly, there needs to be a more compelling motivation than simply averting Armageddon.
What puts Apophis over the top is that obliterating a death-mongering asteroid would represent a fantastic bonanza for both the aerospace industry, as well as newsertainment. An added bonus is that asteroid destruction does not pose any obvious conflicts with the fossil fuels industry. Apophis would be a boon for business with the nifty side benefit of saving the world -- what's not to like?
Of course, it is unfortunate that global warming doesn't make the grade when it comes to extinction level events considered dazzling enough to warrant saving the world. While survivalists hoard food and weapons on "Doomsday Preppers" like squirrels in hazmat suits in preparation for the great magnetic pole inversion, the real threat has telegraphed its arrival in unmistakable terms.
Last week, the New York Times reported that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere had reached an average daily level of 400 parts per million. The last time CO2 levels were this high was about three million years ago during the Pliocene Epoch, when ocean levels were 60 to 80 feet higher than they are today.
This is the latest in a steady stream of measurements and studies that demonstrate clearly that the Earth's climate is trending in a very bad direction. "It feels like the inevitable march toward disaster," said Maureen E. Raymo, a scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.
Given the preponderance of data, you have to wonder why we can't be bothered with global warming. Certainly much of the credit goes to the oil industry, which has done an impressive job of confusing a complacent public. Maybe the problem is that global warming simply isn't as, well, "impactful" as giant asteroids. Maybe we need the threat of a sudden death instead of a prolonged one to grab our attention. Perhaps we need a convex instrument for our collective consciousness to laser focus our attention -- like the climate equivalent of the nuclear doomsday clock. People understand doomsday clocks. They may not get the relationship between carbon emissions and the Earth's temperature but, by God, they can sure tell time.
That skill set could sure come in handy, as we appear to be running out of time.
It is really too bad that we can't choose our disasters from an "Apocalypse Idol" show instead of having them forced upon us. We would likely choose something both thrilling and inert to business, like Apophis. It seems truly unfair that we have instead been saddled with a catastrophe that is apparently too dull and inconvenient to trouble with.
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