Wednesday, September 28, 2022

A Hazard That's Out of This World

There are those whose job it is to literally watch the skies for potential risks to our civilization on Earth.  We don't think much about hazards from above on a daily basis, but the world was watching Monday night as a refrigerator-sized spacecraft launched last year was directed at 15,000 MPH toward an egg-shaped asteroid (above) the size of a football stadium (seven million miles from Earth) in an attempt to redirect its orbit slightly.  As the photos from NASA show, the impact was fairly dramatic, though the exact  result of the redirection attempt is still being evaluated by scientists.  The bottom line is that the test is being hailed as the first step in learning how to mitigate a future event where a heavenly body of some kind may be hurtling toward Earth.  

As the dinosaurs know all too well, an asteroid strike--even if it's on the other side of the globe--can cause lasting, world-wide devastation.  Unfortunately, a random object from space falling to the earth cannot be avoided simply by choosing to move somewhere else or strengthening (or raising) your home, as may be the case to avoid other natural hazards to life. So we'd have to go try to face the hazard directly, and redirect it.  Asteroid impacts have not typically been included in the scale of potential natural hazards to life and human settlement--at least when it comes to traditional hazard mitigation plans.  And, frankly, there's little any of us can do on our own--as individuals or communities--to avoid the potentially catastrophic effects of such an event.  But this underscores the importance of technical intervention of nations and (in this case) teams of nations working together to resolve certain types of hazards.

Like millions around the world, I watched the live TV coverage of the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft as its target grew larger and larger on the screen, ultimately going blank as the tiny ship hit the asteroid. As I did so, I pondered the worldwide attention, financial resources and scientific expertise at places like the Applied Physics Lab at Johns Hopkins University (here in Maryland) that had gone into simply finding, and then launching a rocket to intercept (perfectly), a 560 foot diameter object seven million miles away.  Sometimes it's stunning what we can do as human beings if we work together for good.

Today much of the nation is watching a hurricane named Ian (above) slam into the west coast of Florida with near Category 5 winds (155 MPH) and an estimated storm surge "wall of water" that could engulf coastal communities with up to 18 feet of water. The scale of the potential damage may not have global implications, but the frequency of such storm events--particularly in some places of the world--underscores the need for our society to be directing the same level of attention and resources that are going toward toward critical defensive tests like "DART," to mitigating the potential effects of these catastrophic storms. Unlike the asteroid, a monster storm can't simply be redirected to avoid human settlements.  Continuing preparation and strengthening--hazard mitigation--then become absolutely critical.

Here's hoping the asteroids and comets of the universe stay away from Earth. And here's hoping all my friends and relatives in harm's way in Florida today avoid serious problems from Ian.  We'll be watching. And praying.

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