What would you do if an Asteroid was about to hit Earth?

Recently there have been some conspiracy theory news stories about how asteroid 2016 WF9 (or possibly a comet, astrologists are still trying to determine exactly *what* is flying through the solar system right now) may strike the Earth sometime in the next few weeks.

Asteroid 2016 WF9 on February 25, 2017.

Thankfully, an Earth impact will not happen (this time) as the asteroid’s orbit is only going to bring it to around 32 million miles from the Earth on February 25, 2017.  A distance of 32 million miles is nothing to worry about.  That’s roughly the same distance as the Earth to Mars when the two planets are at their closest (a term known as “opposition”).

But what about 2016 WF9’s return visit in 4.9 Earth years?  What about the asteroid’s orbit after that?  How about its path after that?  And after that?

It stands to reason that if 2016 WF9’s orbit remains perfectly stable and consistent, then at some point in the future it’ll have an extremely close call or possibly impact with Earth, causing catastrophic damage.  It’s just a question of when such an event occurs.

The million dollar question is, What would you do if you knew that an asteroid was going to strike the Earth in a couple of weeks?

An asteroid striking Earth has been the subject of countless science-fiction books, movies, and scientific discussions.  We all know that the Earth has been struck by large space rocks throughout its history.  After all, a large asteroid about six miles across struck the Earth 65 million years ago, causing an apocalyptic chain of events that killed the dinosaurs.

Thankfully, these “global killer” asteroids are incredibly rare when it comes to them striking the Earth (we’re still here, right?).  In the meantime, the planet is continually hit by smaller space rocks, from tiny meteors that harmlessly burn up in the upper atmosphere, creating an awesome light show, to larger rocks that occasionally hit the ground.

Chelyabinsk meteor – February 15, 2013

One of the most recent significant meteors was one that struck Chelyabinsk, Russia on February 15, 2013.  The rock was roughly 65 feet wide, it came in undetected, and it exploded in a powerful air burst explosion about 18 miles above the ground.  The explosion’s shock wave was strong enough to cause a large area of destruction, damaging around 7,200 buildings and injuring nearly 1,500 people.

That’s all from a tremendous air burst explosion.  Imagine how much damage would have occurred if the meteor stayed intact all the way to the surface.

Let’s say that you were told that an asteroid the size of 2016 WF9 (a medium-sized asteroid roughly 0.3 to 0.6 miles across — at least 27 times bigger than the Chelyabinsk meteor) was going to strike the Earth two weeks from today.  It’s not a global killer, but it’s going to cause tremendous damage and temporarily alter the planet’s climate after its impact.

Would you try to flee?

Would you stock up and shelter in place?

Would you do nothing and just accept whatever fate happens?

The problem is that no matter where a medium-sized asteroid such as 2016 WF9 impacts, sooner or later, everybody on Earth will be faced to deal with it.  An ocean impact will create massive tsunamis that will wipe out cities nearest to the impact, and send devastating waves circling around the rest of the oceans, damaging everything in their path.  An impact on land will literally rock that part of the world, resulting in the largest explosion anybody could possibly imagine followed by earthquakes of incredible power and magnitude.

Both scenarios will involve dust and other fine particles blasting up into the atmosphere and basically blocking out enough sunlight to cool the planet, creating a mini Ice Age that will last for years.  Sunlight will be reduced, plants will die, crops will be ruined for years, and animals will starve.  Crops throughout the northern hemisphere will be ruined, especially for the first two years.

The reality is that with an asteroid of this size, there’s very little that you can do with only a few weeks of preparation.

San Andreas (2015) – tsunami scene

You can try to flee from any estimated impact point, especially if it’s going to be in the ocean.  Remember the tsunami scene in San Andreas?  That’s the right idea of such devastation, but the waves would be bigger and move faster, reaching miles onto the land.

That’s just trying to survive the first few minutes and hours after a medium-sized asteroid impact.  Once you survive the shock wave, the earthquakes, and the tsunamis, then you’ve got to focus on your long-term survival because humanity can get primitive and violent really fast.

The closer you are to the impact zone, then the harder time you’ll initially experience.  All hell will break loose as those people who did not or could not evacuate in time try to survive the impact, whether it’s on land or sea.  It’s life-or-death, and people will do anything possible to survive during the moments of chaos.  Those areas will also likely see more violence as people fight for whatever food, water, shelter and other supplies that they need.  Everything will be needed and in very short supply in those areas.  The police and government will be able to do little to control the violence during that time period.

If you’re on the opposite side of the planet when the asteroid hits, it’s possible that you won’t even be aware of what happened aside from the news reports.  Life may be relatively calm and peaceful for you while possibly hundreds of millions of other people are suffering.  Although your area may be calm, you’ll ultimately be affected as the dust spreads around the atmosphere, circling the planet, and blocking out the sun.  Sunrises and sunsets may be spectacular at first, but that’ll change as the sunlight starts to dim and the air begins to cool.  Without sufficient sunlight, crops around the world will produce very little, if anything.

Life and society at that point is going to depend on your location and how well your country has prepared for just such an emergency.  Expect there to be food rationing as the supplies are going to decrease.  You can also expect all other resources going towards whatever needs to be built to help people survive the mini Ice Age, whether it’s shelters, large greenhouses, manufacturing specialty equipment, or anything else.

Martial law will probably be used as an effort to keep people under control.  The general rule is that as long as people have food, water and shelter, then they will be less likely to riot and use violence.  But when supplies begin to run low and people face starvation or other threats (such as needing critical medicine), then they’re going to fight for their survival, or have others do so on their behalf.

The shining light is that if a medium-sized asteroid such as 2016 WF6 were to impact the Earth, it seems like the worst part of the damage and human suffering will be during the first two years.  After that the temperatures will still be cool and the weather patterns may be out of wack compared to what we’re used to today, but the air will slowly start clearing and we’ll have more sunlight.  That will allow for plants to make a rebound, more oxygen will be created, and we’ll see a faster rate of climate recovery after that point.  As long as you can survive for the first couple of years, then chances are likely that you’ll make it for the long-term.

FINAL THOUGHTS

It’s easy to go on and on while debating about what would happen after an asteroid impact, and how today’s society will respond.  There are almost too many variables at involved to make just one general statement about what will or will not happen.

Remember that society has already faced a sudden cooling of the climate caused by a natural event.  1815 experienced the powerful eruption of Mount Tambora in modern-day Indonesia, and the volcanic eruption blasted enough soot and ash into the atmosphere to partially block the sunlight.  The following year in 1816 is widely known as the Year Without a Summer as the decrease in sunlight and lower temperatures wrecked crops all over the world, resulting in famine and mass starvation.

Events like that are a frightening reminder of just how one natural incident can have such a major impact on life all around the world.  While they are incredibly devastating, thankfully they are also rare.

Surviving a disaster results primarily on how well you, as a person and as a country, are prepared to handle it.  It’s always a good idea to have a small stockpile of food, water and medicine should you suddenly face an emergency, whether it’s a hurricane, an earthquake, or even a harsh winter storm that leaves you stranded in your home for a few days.

Remember that the more supplies that you stockpile for your family, then it’s that much less pressure on the government providing critical assistance for you.  It’ll help buy you time until, A) More supplies arrive, or B) The emergency is finished and life has resumed as normal.

For more reading about surviving an asteroid impact, I highly recommend Lucifer’s Hammer by Larry Niven.  Although the book was written in the mid 1970s, it’s still right on the money considering how society would react when facing an overwhelmingly bad disaster.

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