[meteorite-list] A Dangerous Asteroid Would Catch US Unready

From: Ron Baalke <baalke_at_meteoritecentral.com>
Date: Thu Apr 22 09:44:36 2004
Message-ID: <200103051637.IAA00811_at_zagami.jpl.nasa.gov>


A Dangerous Asteroid Would Catch US Unready
Specialists see need for warning procedure
By David L. Chandler
Boston Globe
March 3, 2001

How would the US government respond if astronomers announced an asteroid or
a comet was about to slam into the earth, perhaps leveling buildings or
destroying all civilization?

The answer, it turns out, is that nobody really knows.

A new report by three specialists in asteroid research calls present
planning about how to respond to such a threat "haphazard and unbalanced,"
and points out that the person most likely to sound the alarm has conceded
"he has no idea who in the US government would be receptive to serious
information" about an impending impact.

Scientists have made great progress in the last two decades in understanding
the magnitude of the potential threat, and how to search for celestial time
bombs that might threaten us, but there has been little attention to how
society could or should respond. And yet, as the report explains, such
impacts represent "a very real, if low probability, threat that could
conceivably doom everyone we know and everything we care about."

The report was prepared by asteroid specialists Clark Chapman and Daniel
Durda of the Southwest Research Institute in Colorado and Robert Gold of
Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Some smaller impacts, the report says, are not that rare. Objects the size
of an office building may strike the Earth about once per century, with
results that are localized but nevertheless more devastating than most other
natural disasters. The most recent such impact was on June 30, 1908 over a
remote area of the Tunguska river basin in Siberia. Even though the object
exploded five miles high and never hit the ground, trees were flattened and
charred over an area of 800 square miles - a swath greater than the New York
metropolitan area.

So if a Tunguska-size object were seen heading toward Earth and might be
aiming toward a population center, who would the astronomers call? "It's a
very serious question," said Brian Marsden, director of the Cambridge-based
clearinghouse where all such astronomical discoveries are first reported. "I
have asked on occasion, but nobody has told me."

Even if he reached someone receptive - perhaps someone at the White House,
NASA, the Department of Defense or the Federal Emergency Management Agency -
would they know what to do next? At present, that seems unlikely.

For example, the report said, "the most likely international disaster that
would result from an impact is an unprecedentedly large tsunami," or tidal
wave, "yet those entities and individuals responsible for warning, or
heeding warnings, about tsunamis are generally unaware of impact-induced

And, Marsden said, if a large object were hurtling toward the planet, poorly
informed officials might make the wrong decisions: "They might do something
foolhardy like trying to blow it up, not knowing what they're dealing with,
and make even more of a mess."

Because the larger, most devastating objects are actually easier to find,
"in a sense, the smaller objects are more dangerous," Marsden said. They are
much more frequent, and much more likely to sneak up on us with little or no

In some ways, the public may be more aware of the dangers than many
officials. Increasingly, unusual events are interpreted as being impacts of
celestial objects even when they are not. This week, there was a flurry of
news reports in England about a woman nearly being struck by a meteorite,
which left a charred, three-foot-deep hole in the ground. Scientists were
preparing to rush to the scene when local officials realized that the impact
had actually come from below: An underground powerline had short-circuited
and blasted the hole upward to the surface.

Such responses illustrate another aspect of the impact hazard that has
received too little attention, Chapman said. "A wire breaks in England, and
people go nuts ... There are effects beyond just the sheer destruction of an
impact itself," he said. "Issues like public panic, or a misinterpretation
by Pakistan, say, of an impact as an act of war."

Richard Binzel, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology astronomer and
asteroid specialist who has devised a Richter-like numerical scale for
describing the risk from any new asteroid that might be on a collision
course, said yesterday he fears that the first object discovered on a
collision course will most likely be a small one, "so small that there is no
rational expectation of anything more than a spectacular display. But how do
we know that for sure, and communicate that for sure, so the public response
is rational?"
Received on Mon 05 Mar 2001 11:37:33 AM PST

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