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Asteroids to Eruptions: Chances of Extinction Event Slim, but US Scientists Monitoring Above and Below


As the world deals with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, we're learning new information about other possible threats to civilization. 

Beyond pandemics, our Earth faces natural hazards from asteroids, volcanoes, and even solar storms. 


Existential scenarios like an asteroid hitting the Earth face pretty long odds.

"The likelihood of that happening are literally astronomical," said Lindley Johnson, NASA's planetary defense officer.

But just in case, "we now have the technology to detect these things far in advance," said Johnson, the Earth's watchman on the lookout for exactly that kind of threat that wiped out the dinosaurs.

"We believe we have already found all of the near-earth asteroids that are of that size that can cause the same kind of catastrophe that occurred to the dinosaurs but there are still a few large ones to find out there," he said. 

Johnson and other planetary defenders have a plan to redirect an asteroid potentially heading for Earth, and next summer NASA will test that capability for the first time by crashing a probe into an asteroid's moon, knocking it off orbit, and off course.

"We've been given the tools to prevent this ever happening to us again and so we should use them," said Johnson. 

The watchers call scenarios like these "high impact, low probability" events. 


The 1944 eruption of Mount Vesuvius rained down on the Naples area some 2,000 years after it destroyed Pompeii.

"This sort of gets into social science," said Geophysicist Michael Poland with the US Geological Survey, speaking about the difficulty of coordinating an evacuation of a city of millions threatened by a volcanic eruption. 

"There are environments like that all over the world, not just Naples, environments like that in Indonesia, Philippines, the Taal volcano eruption near Manila. If there had been a really large eruption, how do you coordinate a massive evacuation?" he asked. 

As to whether there's any way to stop a volcano from erupting, Poland said that "occasionally we get this question, like why don't you just drill into the volcano and pump water down there?" 

"The scale of the problem is really incomprehensibly big," he said, "So, no, you can't stop a volcano from erupting. You might be able to divert some of the products but the best mitigation methods we have today are to get out of the way."

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In just minutes, the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens resulted in 57 lives lost and hundreds of millions of dollars in damage. 

After destroying every living thing within 230 square miles, the devastation forced the world to take volcano monitoring a little more seriously. 

"The science of eruption forecasting certainly has advanced. We can recognize a lot of eruptions that are becoming restless based on earthquakes, ground deformations, gas emissions," said Poland, who also oversees the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory at the National Park in Wyoming. 

"With Yellowstone, the worst-case scenario is always a tremendous explosion, of the kind that last happened about 631,000 years ago, that was one of these super-eruptions that occur on average maybe every 50,000 to 100,000 years somewhere on the planet."

Scientists think that the worst-case scenario is also the least likely to happen, but if it did, "it's not going to cause our extinction," said Poland. 

"That's not to say that it wouldn't be pretty devastating. These sorts of eruptions would be immediately devastating to everything around them out to a radius of hundreds to thousands of kilometers," he added. 

Solar Eruptions

While hundreds of active volcanoes exist around the world, another threat hangs right above our heads. 

On July 23, 2012, an eruption of the sun sent giant particle clouds hurtling through space at 6.7 million miles an hour; missing the Earth but passing straight through a satellite in its path. 

"We monitor the sun 24/7," said Dr. Doug Biesecker, a solar physicist with NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center.

"What keeps me up about space weather is missing the forecast of the one in a 100-year surface storm. The sort of storm that would cause widespread power outage. You could imagine the maybe the entire northeast losing power for at least a few hours if not for a day or more," he said. 

In 1859, one of these eruptions hit the Earth. Now known as the Carrington event, it's the largest geomagnetic storm on record. 

"The technology of the day was the telegraph and telegraph operators were able to disconnect their batteries and use the electricity caused by the solar storm to run their systems," said Biesecker. 

Today, a Carrington-like event would be similar to an electromagnetic pulse or EMP, in that case, the emergency plan is a temporary power shut off to save the grid. 

"In this country, we work very closely with the power grid operators to make sure that we can keep the lights on even in an extreme event," said Biesecker. 

Scientists might not be able to predict or prevent every catastrophe or global disaster but for most of these high impact, low probability events, there's a watchman at the gate. 

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