The End of the World

The cosmic sandstorm

To get a better idea of how frequently the Earth is likely to be hit, we need to find out how many rocks are hurtling around our solar system and, in particular, how many of these come close enough to the Earth to start us worrying. Although a vast amount of debris was wept up by the embryonic planets during the early solar system, countless dregs remain, ran ging upwards in size from tiny specks a few millimetres across to gigantic rocks, such as the minor planet Ceres, over a i,ooo kilometres...

The Earth a potted biography

The major global geophysical catastrophes that await us down the line are in fact just run-of-the-mill natural phenomena writ large. In order to understand them, therefore, it is essential to know a little about the Earth and how it functions. Here, I will sashay through the 4.6 billion years of Earth history, elucidating along the way those features that make our world so hazardous and our future upon it so precarious. To begin, it is sometimes worth pondering upon just how incredibly old the...

Hell on Earth

Imagine the worst possible vision of hell. The vile stench of sulphurous gas pervading a world of darkness broken only by a dull red glow on a distant, invisible horizon. Heavy, grey ash pours from above like snow, clogging the eyes, nose, and ears as swiftly as you can remove it. Choking and retching you ram your fingers into your mouth to try and gouge out the ashy, gritty slime that forces its way in with every struggling breath, but to no avail. Suddenly a blinding flash reveals the...

How would you like to die

If supporters of the Taurid Complex model are to be believed, and I should say now that their views remain very much in the minority amongst advocates of the impact threat, then we may have only another thousand years or so before a series of blinding flashes and crashing sonic booms heralds the arrival of the next batch of fragmented comet. Alternatively, we could face oblivion tomorrow or have to wait 50,000 years before a city is obliterated or the world plunged into cosmic winter beneath a...

The city waiting to die

It is extraordinarily difficult to get across to someone who has never experienced it the sheer, mind-numbing terror of being caught in a major earthquake. Even in California, where the population is constantly bombarded with information about what to do in the event of a quake, coherent, sensible thought ceases when the ground starts to tremble. Following the Loma Prieta quake that struck northern California in 1989, a survey by the United States Geological Survey revealed that only 13 per...

Natural hazards and us

If you were not already aware of the scale of the everyday threat from nature then I hope, by now, to have engendered a healthy respect for the destructive potential of the hazards that many of our fellow inhabitants of planet Earth have to face almost on a daily basis. The reinsurance company Munich Re., who, for obvious reasons, have a considerable interest in this sort of thing, estimate that up to 15 million people were killed by natural hazards in the last millennium, and over 3.5 million...