The Risk Calculus of Large Asteroid Collisions
Hi readers! This is a formal essay I wrote for my sophomore English project at school. It’s a pleasant deviation from what I normally post on this blog; there are parenthetical citations and a bibliography included.
At even the suggestion of an asteroid hurtling towards earth that will wipe out all living creatures, people tend to giggle, a serious miscalculation of the nature of the threat of an asteroid collision. In reality, we, as the dominant species of earth, have become much more susceptible to “existential risks” than ever before. Yet, no one has stepped up; no one has brainstormed any sort of international framework for mitigating these threats. Biologically biased, we cannot calculate the severity of the collision because we have not experienced it in our lifetime, and so we have not become aware of the probability and magnitude of consequences like bioterrorism, resource depletion, unstable government transitions, and of course, asteroid collisions. Therefore, activities like policy debate or just research and rationalization can educate us so that we can accurately weigh such risks. In the case of a menacing NEO – Near Earth Object – not only does civilization today face a dire threat, but future generations do as well. While people generally disregard the risk of an asteroid collision, it indeed exists as the greatest natural disaster threat that humanity faces, mainly because of the public distortion of the threat, lack of government action, and the existential risk that it poses.
Initially, the media plays the biggest role of explaining the public’s ignorance of the risks of asteroids. Hollywood glamorizes an NEO impact, either portraying it as a measly threat that a heroic figure can easily fight off, or an event that only happens in the movies (National Academies of the United States 96). Thus, the public assumes that the government will protect them in the instance of an asteroid collision, but the government often does not have other nations’ interests at heart; it has not invested money or time to defend another country, rather, it assumes that another government will step up to defend the world (National Academies of the United States 27). The status quo reveals that the government has not sufficiently funded appropriate programs, actually cutting off funding for research and detection at the Arecibo Center – a key component in the detection of perilous asteroids – to a total of two million dollars each year, compared to the seventy four billion dollars that a program like the F-22 raptor fighting aircraft receives (NASA; Axe).
Equally important, the government only has three potentially feasible options for deflecting NEO’s. First, the nuclear reactor, a method of nuclear pulse propulsion, would explode on the surface of an asteroid, changing its momentum (National Academies of the United States 4). However, unstable rogue states such as North Korea, Iran, and Pakistan would easily perceive any sort of nuclear technology as an offensive measure from the United States. Easily provoked, they could potentially deploy their own offensive nuclear weapons, which would likely trigger a nuclear conflict, potentially snowballing into a nuclear war (David). In a second scenario, a kinetic impactor would send a heavy object like a spaceship to collide with the menacing asteroid, slowing down the velocity of the NEO. Finally, the gravitational tractor would land on the surface of the NEO and gravitationally oppose its direction, gradually slowing it down so that it would pass through Earth’s orbit after the Earth had already passed. However, none of these options will succeed; only the kinetic impactor has been tested, and the rest exist as solely hypothetical ideas (National Academies of the United States 4).
Furthermore, the most significant component for the success of an asteroid deflection remains early warning detection, acquired from an NEO detection telescope deployed specifically in a Venus orbit. Current day, earth orbiting telescopes have blind spots that prevent them from having one hundred percent accuracy; thus, with a telescope in a Venus orbit, the government could acquire decades of prior notice (Lu). In 1989, the NEO 4581 Asclepius missed Earth by only five hundred thousand miles, a comparatively small distance on the cosmic scale, which scientists discovered ten days after it had passed through Earth orbit. Had it collided with the earth, scientists predict it would have had the energy of twenty thousand hydrogen bombs (Marsden; United Press International).
Above all, the most important component of deciding the degree of risk remains existential risk calculation; Nick Bostrom – a philosopher of existential risk – defines it as “one [occurrence] where an adverse outcome would either annihilate Earth-originating intelligent life or permanently and drastically curtail its potential” (Bostrom). Having never actually encountered an NEO that has caused extinction in our lifetime, humanity faces an especially large danger because of our ignorance and biological bias; we tend to overlook and underestimate the dangers of an NEO (Posner). In terms of an NEO collision, while the odds of such an occurrence remain extremely low, its aperiodic timeframe and nearly infinite magnitude of consequences indicates that a large asteroid collision poses the greatest existential risk to humanity (Matheny).
Moreover, the probability of an asteroid exists as the most underestimated component in the risk calculus of an NEO threat. As Gerritt Verschuur – a radio astronomist specializing in NEO’s – puts it, “What is most important is how we react to the idea that extinction is literally inevitable. We will ignore it until we actually discover an asteroid hurtling toward us that will cause extinction, because the easiest way to confront the idea of extinction is through denial”; he believes that the magnitude of destruction should guide risk calculus, as opposed to the likelihood of it happening, which the general public uses to weigh risk (Verschuur 158). The chances of an asteroid collision become complicated because of its aperiodicity and its inevitability; no empirical logic can predict when an NEO will strike or any reason as to why it would not ever hit again (Brownfield). To depict an example, the government invests billions more for counterterrorism, than for NEO detection and deflection, regardless of the fact that statistically, death by asteroid remains far more likely than death by terrorist attack (Plait).
Despite the dangers, the US has done nothing to prepare for a dangerous NEO. Multiple ideas have been proposed; first, the US should raise more awareness about the threat by conducting more research on the location of potentially dangerous NEO’s (Bostrom). Current systems have detected solely ninety percent of dangerous asteroids so far, but this does not suffice; an extinction-causing asteroid looms in the remaining ten percent (National Academies of the United States 1). Second, the National Research Council has suggested that the US cooperate to create a framework for international action, with other countries such as China and the European Union, who have advanced space development systems, capable of asteroid detection (Space Daily; Vieru). Also, the government should arrange a last resort option, if an NEO gets detected without sufficient early warning time; as of now, the government has only prepared underground evacuation bunkers, initially prepared for important government officials, but later expanded to house millions of refugees. Construction of these underground safe havens continues today, and started decades ago (Bostrom; Slavo). Moreover, for general existential threats such as nuclear weapons, the US should prepare a pre-emptive strike option for rogue countries that have been predicted by the government to use offensive technologies like nuclear weapons (Bostrom). Finally, the government should attempt to limit technological development of certain concepts that could lead to an existential risk catastrophe, such as international relations disputes, nuclear war, and nanotechnology, which has dual-use capabilities (Bostrom; Center for Responsible Nanotechnology).
In contrast, to relate my personal life to the topic of extinction-causing asteroids, my experience in debate has taught me much about policymaking and decision-making. We debate the pros and cons of a specific occurrence, rationalizing about the likelihood and how long it would take to occur, and how badly it would affect the world. Especially in the case of existential threats like asteroids, if a catastrophe could potentially curtail the possibility of future development, and if there exists even the slightest possibility of its occurrence, that disaster would have the greatest risk. The public, when presented with the idea of an extinction-causing asteroid collision, will offer up statistics about the probability of its occurrence; these only provide a metric of hope, suggesting denial of the threat. After two years of debating such consequences, I have come to believe that considering the intensity of the consequences of an existential danger should precede weighing the probability or the timeframe, because if we base our decisions primarily off of the likelihood, we tend to miss the big picture threat. Making decisions based on the magnitude of the consequence will improve the world’s wellbeing over the long term.
Likewise, the aftermath of an asteroid collision exists as another big factor that contributes to its huge existential risk. The heat released had the energy of one million Hiroshima bombs, vaporizing the ocean and incinerating the world’s land through global wildfires that raged on for days. The actual impact of the blow intensified natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis, literally flattened forests, and projected debris into space, creating a dust cloud that blocked the rays of the sun, which brought temperatures plunging, causing an Ice Age that killed most of the remaining animals. After potentially hundreds of thousands of years, when the dust finally settled, the trivial number of survivors on earth faced acid rain and rapid global warming from the deadly ultraviolet rays that shone through the remains of the ozone layer, destroyed when the NEO tore through the atmosphere. From the dust and hazardous nitrous oxides released from these catastrophes, photosynthesis stopped completely, destroying food sources and resulting in mass famines (McGuire).
Furthermore, an asteroid poses an even greater danger to today’s civilization because of our dangerous capabilities; with nuclear technology but not yet adequate nuclear weapons detection systems, the panic and confusion resulting from an impact would surely cause countries like India or Iraq to miscalculate a collision as a nuclear attack, fueling conflict, potentially sparking a nuclear war (McGuire; David). The wildfires, acid rain, and termination of the process of photosynthesis would destroy crops, causing, as Bill McGuire describes it, “widespread disruption of the social and economic fabric of developed nations.” Because of large building structures, the hyper-tornadoes and stronger-than-ever earthquakes would become even deadlier. With limited options consisting of solely hypothetical, never-been-tested asteroid deflection ideas, the world would have to live in underground bunkers, which have not been built to house the entire planet’s population (Slavo).
More importantly, the NEO threat should be our first priority, because the consequences of extinction by asteroid would encompass those of other disasters, permanently stopping the development of humans, plants, and animals. With humans extinct, future species would not evolve with the brain capacity of humans to avoid threats such as anthropogenic global warming, or genetically engineered diseases (The Daily Galaxy). Without humans, Earth would not have the ability to fend off a natural existential catastrophe, such as a super nova, a super volcano, or possibly, another dangerous asteroid (Matheny).
Generally, any sort of existential risk could result in a plethora of catastrophes, be it a natural event like an asteroid, or a human-caused consequence. After any extinction-risking event – including an asteroid collision – takes place, we face dangers such as a loss of ethical sense after a revolution; confusion and nuclear war could cause a shift to a dystopian government, leading to transitions from capitalism, to an unstable state of government, like communism, or maybe even to cannibalism. The consequences of an accidental nuclear war caused by an asteroid collision could create human mutated super viruses or genetically engineered disease, easily obliterating the world, no matter how low the probability. Faced with the threat of resource depletion from crop failures, many governments depend so highly on resources for survival and economic preeminence; thus an asteroid could cause a chain reaction that would collapse economies and global trade systems (Bostrom).
Indeed, although it exists as the largest existential threat, humanity in today’s world cannot easily perceive the intensity of a large asteroid collision; the public faces psychological biases due to inadequate education, and the government does not take appropriate action to mitigate the impact (Bostrom; Posner). Only hypothetical ideas exist to effectively combat NEO’s, and the government does not invest enough in early warning or asteroid mitigation in general. However, the greatest factor in proving an asteroid as the greatest existential threat remains the aftermath of a collision, and what the damage would inflict on evolution, impacting future generations (Matheny). Therefore, given the severity of the aftermath of such an NEO disaster, today’s generation should first become educated, learning efficient decision-making and risk calculating, realizing that the aperiodicity and magnitude of consequences should guide their actions and opinions, and finally make the choice to prepare themselves adequately for an asteroid collision. Yet, despite the infinite dangers, the government has yet to conduct enough research, come up with a backup plan involving international action, or even become conscious of limiting development of potential existential threats. Through my personal experience in debate I have become aware of dangerous threats like asteroids, rationally assessing them. Education about such impacts will help to make the public and government more aware, which will hopefully lead to diminishing the risk of the greatest existential threat out there today.
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