Ch 39. The Impact

39. The Impact and Our Future

Low Probability, high consequence – that’s what they said about the possibility of an impact. It was a fair assessment. On any given day, the possibility of impact was vanishingly small because the intervals between significant impacts were tens and hundreds of millions of years.

 

If we had sense enough to pay attention to the evidence on the other planets without weather and tectonic plate activity, we would have seen that even if it does not happen every day, it does happen sometime.

 

That was the critical difference. That was why we had to depend on the kindness of the universe, such as it was.

 

If the Impactor had been twice as big, one of the rocks of that size beyond counting, all susceptible to being tipped to the Earth as the Impactor was, humanity would have been erased just like the dinosaurs. And if our planet was lucky, avoiding total sterilization from such an impact, and stubborn cells had survived, life would have started its long rise again. But we would not have been the result of that rise.

 

Evolution has well prepared us to triage the risks of everyday life. But our species is ill-equipped to assess long term risks.

 

I was ashamed of the risks I had taken with my friends lives after Cyra’s death, and it came back to haunt me many times. I had thought about it at the time, but, I couldn’t see any way but to go ahead as fast as I could to head off events before they headed us off. Nevertheless, I was deeply disturbed by it.

 

I did what I do when I am troubled. I don’t really understand why, but the overwhelming tragedy of it somehow calms me where it had agitated my mother. Maybe it is perspective, I don’t know. You might think I am deranged to watch the incineration of 120 million people repeatedly. But I am not alone. Perhaps it has scarred humanity so deeply that there is no other way to accept it but to re-live it.

 

Like the people who focused on the Holocaust of the Second World War or the extermination of the Kulaks by the Russians in the 30’s, or the slaughter of the Tutsi in Rwanda, or meticulously recounted the events of the Black Death in the 14th Century, or hundreds of other events that would depress one into inaction to recount. Any good reason for all that death and all the grief it caused? You tell me.

 

In life, at least, there is the purposeful ordering of elements that otherwise would react together combined without any goal. I have never found more than that, but it comforts me enough. A triumph over raw nature. Like all terrible events I can think of, the Impact has brought forth some fruit that would not have come without it. That’s the best you can say.

 

Despite it, mankind still lives. And now its chance of survival is orders of magnitude better with three planets to live on. Undoubtedly, despite the millions who died in the Impact and the devastating events that followed, the climate effects, and the rampaging epidemics that took the weakened billions who survived the initial explosion, we are actually better off than we would have been if the comet had been 20 kilometers wide rather than 10.

 

That would not have been a change of any consequence in the life of the universe, but it would have done away with us the same way the dinosaurs disappeared and others of the extinguished species who have lived and died on this earth before us.

 

So that is how we see the Impact. When 120 million people and the heart of your culture disappear in a moment, there is no forgetting it. There are all those traumatic replays of so many losses that spill down through the generations like some corrosive effluent, dissolving and scarring a spring’s rocks as it spills over them.

 

The parents pass on their psychic injuries to their children in their mother’s milk, as my father used to say. A cascade of anger that they were targeted and shame that they survived when so many others did not. And they still live among us because we had to take them in. What else could we do? Their homes, even the land upon which they stood, were gone, and they had nowhere to go.

 

I was watching it now on one of the sat vids taken on that day – from one of the many that filled the sky above our planet and flew as unwitting witnesses to our destruction.

 

I selected remote images from above because that’s all I could stand.  I can’t look at any close-ups – I just can’t watch people buffeted by shock waves, or crisped and combusted by heat waves, or suffering the manifold paths to death that instantly erased people unlucky enough to be near the gargantuan explosion created by the Impactor.

 

Oh, there are many tasty scenes created by people whose motivations frankly escape me. They are all over the nets, but to me, they are essentially pornography.

 

Looking directly into the face of the horror may promise some a handle to an understanding they need to explain it all. But I can’t see that – it’s never there for me. It just happened.

 

I watched it in slomo, observing events that occurred with such speed as to be instantaneous and indistinguishable.  In real-time you can’t really see anything but the comet streaking in at an angle, the ominous shadow briefly preceding it to impact, and an enormous fireball appearing almost simultaneously.

 

But in slomo you can see the incandescent monster streak cross the sky, preceded by its shadowed head of inky blackness blocking the sun, to hit the Med just south and east of Sicily.

 

It drills into the sea and then the earth below and disappears into its hole and an instant later an orange and red plume of rock and gas explodes upward expanding rapidly until the impact site is hidden in a blinding ball of red and purple dust eclipsing the central Med.

 

The glowing ball expands towards me and a vortex appears in its center, bright with rapidly transported hot gas and plasma. This is the outlet for products of the initial explosion that are escaping directly into space because the atmosphere that has been shoved out of the way by the speeding comet has not yet had time to fill in its track. So, for brief moments, you can see the rock and gas wisping into space.

 

At the same time, you can see the fireball from above generating the heat wave incinerating everything in its path, and following that, the shock wave that blows down everything that stands above ground level. Cities, forests and lakes instantly disappear and blacken. This is what has happened to the people and the works of four thousand years of unremitting effort. But I have chosen not to see the details.

 

Then, in a few moments, the lofted, heated, and melted rock starts to return to earth, reddening the sky so you almost feel the furnace heat it is radiating back down to the surface. It starts isolated fires all over the Med, multiplying in orders of magnitude the fires already started by the heat wave from the original explosion.

 

In the center, the monster ejecta cloud mercifully obscures it, itself hot, but not as hot as the incandescent dust that has fallen back towards earth and been heated by the friction of descent through the atmosphere.

 

The red-hot cloud starts spreading out and baking the earth underneath with a killing heat that crisps everything exposed under it – all the beings on it being cooked like food in an oven, creating, as it goes, local weather patterns that generate vast lightning storms as the dried air coming up from the massed fires rises.

 

The two clouds, the hotter one glowing around the slightly darker, but still burning ‘hole’ look like an infernal doughnut from a fevered nightmare.

 

They create even more fires that create thousands of firestorms that draw air in at supersonic speeds and asphyxiate everything that has survived the earlier destruction, forming huge inverted tornadoes of fire that erupt up through the clouds of smoke that form over the burning.

 

On the margins of that awful inferno, you can see the spreading tsunamis that inundate the coasts and swamp what is left of the coastal settlements going far inland with waves as high as the Med was deep.

 

Later, the Impact will shake the very earth and culminate in volcanic eruptions all over Italy, France and Serbia, Bosnia and beyond along the European-African fault line.

 

It goes on from horror to horror. But I was so lucky not to be in it. Inexplicably so. With tiny differences in trajectory it could so easily have been my home, and my parents who disappeared in an instant.

 

I couldn’t feel the searing heat, or hear the deafening sound, or feel the pulverizing shock wave, or fight for breath when the firestorms burnt the very oxygen out of the air, or feel the very earth move under my feet as everything fell in on me.

 

And the effects didn’t stop with the purely physical. Even the dust in the air, fractured and lofted by the explosion, picked up some of the energy released. Powerful winds and electrical induction transformed that energy into EMP[i] that destroyed most of the electronics for thousands of miles around.

 

If it weren’t for the wide use of high capacity solid state units buried in protective silos in the earth as the atmospheric effects of global warming increased prior to the Impact, the world would have lost most of its accumulated digital knowledge along with everything else.

 

Will we ever to see the like again, and see the pitiless face of an uncaring universe? It might be in the next five minutes or not for millions of years, but it will come. That is the reason why we have stripped much of what remains of our wealth and treasure to plant our hopes for survival on other planets, spreading the risk of extinction to ensure the persistence of some of our kind.

 

Some say that we were incredibly lucky only to be hit by a ten-kilometer comet in the middle of a sea that dampened its effects, but the hundreds of millions who died in the immediate explosion and fires and the added millions whose lives were devastated by the aftermath of injury, illness and starvation would probably not agree. Certainly, it was a close call for our species. Similar impacts have had a worse effect on life here many times in the past.

 

But this strike in the Mediterranean basin where the straights of Gibraltar throttled a possible worldwide tsunami that limited the immediate direct casualties to ‘only’ 120 million.

 

There were more lost in the ensuing regional wildfires caused by the fall of molten ejecta from the impact explosion, the lingering deaths from starvation from volcanic eruptions, crop failures from the cooling by lofted dust, earthquakes caused by disruption of the fault lines in the earth’s crust at the impact site, and subsequent tsunamis caused by the crustal reverberations from the impact. It was bad.

 

Then families torn apart by the loss of essential members, mass trauma to the survivors who were transported to northern Europe and transmitted their incapacitating psychoses to others left in their midst like a communicable disease. The erasure of communities and their thousands of years old culture and tradition, connections and ties that took millennia to develop, and the mass survivor’s guilt that still afflicts them. It was all bad.

 

Large numbers of people still feel unconnected to their fellows and have none of the socially binding trust of one another that allows communities to function. The stress from the social vacuum of the Impact atomized the people and made them flotsam on an uncaring sea of uncaring others.

 

The widespread wildfires were a small mercy to the survivors, mostly in areas most proximate to the blast who otherwise would have had to bury tens of millions of bodies left behind by the tsunamis and earthquakes. The flames cremated the dead (along with many of those still living) sparing the survivors from at least some of the mass burials that would have been necessary to avoid worldwide plagues.

 

I do go on, but when I start to think of it forms a feedback loop that plays from disaster to disaster and starts again until I pull myself away.

 

I was unborn, later to live in the center of the North American continent, and as far away as you could get from the immediate event. I did not exist to see the orange glow in the sky from the point of impact they saw in much of central Europe.

 

When I was young I did see the sky darkened from the effects of the wildfires that had pumped soot into the stratosphere and the material lofted by the Impact that obscured the sun for years afterward.

 

The witnesses to the Impact saw the ejecta plummeting glowing deep red from the re-entry for days after the Impact that started fires wherever they landed. Since the odds were that most would hit uninhabited places, there were uncontrollable forest fires all that summer as the global warming from the extra CO2 generated by the burning kicked in after the initial cooldown from the dust picked up by the Impact.

 

Some of the dust began gradually to settle out of the atmosphere at lower altitudes, but much of it was lofted so that it was too high to wash out and the air got gradually worse all over the world as the crops died and the increased volcanism poured more Sulphur and CO2 into the atmosphere.

 

The Mediterranean basin is now still a huge park, largely charred black and showing streaks and puffs of dirty grey where the vegetation has started to grow back as the dust started to clear.

 

The Med is only now being recolonized from Northern Europe and southern Africa 80 years after the event, and you can see dull green islands in the devastation where they have planted low-light tolerant plants to reclaim the land.

 

Nature has started to recover some of the areas cleared by the wildfires, but the scenes of devastation still chill the reconstruction teams who venture into barren areas once teeming with human activity.

 

There are now few left who witnessed those events. At whatever remove on this small planet that geography allowed, they came out of it irrevocably changed and forever aware that life is fragile.

 

All the astronomy of the formation of the Solar System we had idly read with indifference was instantly brought into the closest focus. Even though we had no way to see another disaster coming, we heard the astronomers when they theorized that the comet that hit us could be one of a group dislodged from the Oort cloud centuries ago and we looked at the skies constantly. Astronomy became the queen of sciences very quickly.

 

And, I suppose, it woke us up to the true nature of our universe and prompted us to take the actions we did take to ensure that mankind, and its painful progress up from the dust, would not be lost entirely when the inevitable repetition happened. Maybe we will be thankful sometime in the future for the warning, no matter how pointed.

 

But not yet. The tragedy stood alone in the history of a humanity with a long and varied history of tragedies and I have not yet heard any speak gratitude that it wasn’t worse. The Impactor comet that hit us still has not been given an astronomical name. I suppose that is significant.

 

Fear needs no name.

 

The designated EarthWatch astronomers, were mostly part-time at their task and working at a begrudged job of looking out for potential impactors with limited viewing time left over from telescopes with more important research work. They were using data not configured to their purposes and couldn’t even see the comet until it was too close to do anything but shout “Fire”.

 

They gave the world one day of warning.

 

Thankfully, since it was coming in from almost straight above and extremely fast because of its centuries long fall toward the Sun, you needed special equipment to see it, so most people waited blind.

 

There were a few countries under existing threat that were organized already, like the Israelis, who mounted people on buses and took them to shelters in the Judean Hills, but most still died anyway. There just was not much to do on such short notice.

 

They were not at all likely to see it coming from the Oort cloud, way off the plane of the ecliptic where the planets rotated, and they just weren’t looking in that direction. Impactors were expected to come from the asteroid belt or the Kuiper belt from within the solar system and have similar alignment to the planets. The Oort cloud is way beyond the Kuiper belt and forms a globe around the Solar System, containing untold trillions of objects.

 

It is so far out that it interacts with interstellar dust, peppering and eroding those unconstructed bits of potential planets, and wisps of primordial gas, as they slowly rotate around the Sun. The theory is that some perturbation (possibly dark matter waves in the Sun’s orbit, or maybe a neighboring Stars’ own distant cloud), nudged our Impactor, and maybe others, which didn’t hit us, out of the Cloud, and sent them on a centuries long journey to the inner system to Impact with our Earth.

 

It doesn’t really matter what the reason, the effect was that ‘our’ comet hit the earth full on in the middle of the Mediterranean just north of the place where the African plate was overrunning the Eurasian plate. Maybe the sea strike did minimize the tsunami effects and slightly smother the blast.

 

Maybe so, but it still was bad beyond description.

 

The injuries and burns on those millions who survived the initial shock blast because of some vagary of placement were horrendous and, on a practical level untreatable, because of their number and density. It is impossible to overestimate the effect on the survivors of the horror of seeing others, and so many loved ones among them, dying in excruciating agony.

 

We did have a limited perception gained by our experience in microcosm from nuclear explosions, but the scale of suffering after the impact beggared the imagination of it.

 

It has now been about 80 years from the disaster. Already, the number of people who have a living memory of it is rapidly shrinking. Eventually, like every previous disaster survived, it will be reduced to words in a reference volume or graphics in a webcast. And the feelings we survivors had will be lost like most experience is lost when people die and generations pass.

 

Not to say that there are not thousands and perhaps millions of first person accounts on the nets available for anyone to see or hear. But how many do? How many normal people living their everyday lives want to listen to accounts of the extreme misery, terror and hopelessness?

Would it make us better people to suffer vicariously, or will it make a repetition less likely?

 

It was in that atmosphere that the idea of herculean expenditures for a planetary colony, earlier thought to be based on a preposterous unlikelihood of any present danger, seemed at once to make sense for the whole human race.

 

It was then that the idea of a moon colony, the first and easiest of the planetary settlements to undertake, gained widespread support as essential to safeguard the human project so nearly extinguished.

 

That is the reason why we were so eager to venture into space and spend our treasure. I admit that our mad rush to start a Moon colony at any price and eventually go to Mars made little bottom line economic sense. But when did humanity do anything for purely logical reasons?

 

We came together in the UN and saddled our shattered economies with the added burden of a major space program to make sure that if it happened again in the way we now knew had happened so many times before, mankind would have a chance of survival.

 

Since governments had so many burdens already trying to build a shattered Mediterranean basin and care for their survivors, we gave generous terms to private enterprise to join in the efforts, and the Lunar Settlement Authority was created.

 

It, helped by all the governments of the world, raised most of the money and built the equipment for the task.

 

The process took a surprisingly brief time because the drones were under continual observation on the tide locked moon whose near side always faced in our direction. We had developed the technology to maintain detailed control over the builder machines they transported there with the reusable shuttles the commercial companies had developed. Gradually they sent enough machines to start building a first settlement at the south pole where we expected to find water, and they did, except not as much water as they were hoping. But it was enough to start on and hope to get more.

 

They built the first huts and covered them with regolith packed down and sintered to be stable, so they could live in relative safety from the hard radiation that rained down on the moon’s surface. They were big huts because they needed adequate space to allow the first settlers to be reasonably comfortable. By that time, people had become aware that physical isolation does strange things to even the strongest and most determined people. This effect was softened by supplying all the comforts they could muster to make the isolation seem a little less harsh.

 

They supplied net connections to the Earth nets from the first to lessen that isolation, and they provided everyone with a private room with large common areas supplied with exercise machines and displayscreens with soothing views of earth and gyms and real toilets and showers and recycling facilities and electric power from generators, installed on the mountain tops to expose them to constant sunlight notwithstanding the two-week night and day period.

 

They provided extremely good food so that the anxieties of separation would bite less. It worked well, and, of course, they had chosen some extraordinary people for the settlement.

 

Gradually, at great sacrifice for the peoples of Earth so recently traumatized by the Impact, Newton, our first new city, was built with the wonder of the Commons. Bulldozing machines dug the extensive tunnel system we needed to grow our crops and purify our air and created the space. Using it, we grew and started to prosper.

 

[i] Electromagnetic Pulse that can burn out electronics over a wide area.