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Nature : The Unknown Perils

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LIVING WITH NATURE IN MODERN FORMS - MISSION FOR THE TWENTY FIRST CENTURY

NATURE : THE UNKNOWN PERILS

Y S Rajan

‘End of the world’ scare surfaces, when some sects raise these beliefs through media. I have seen many youth getting worried about it. Recently there was one such scare. Some persons converted the scare into a tourist attraction to visit the ancient Maya sites.  When young persons used to ask me seriously about such possibilities when they are in the midst of such rumours, I tell them “These are rumours surfacing every few years.  Assuming it is true, what can you do to prevent it?  Therefore don’t waste your mental peace and energy on such matters. Enjoy life and build up yourselves for enjoying it for several decades more.  Earth is much more robust than what you think or doomsdayers predict!  While lives of individuals may be fragile and transient, life as a whole and especially the Mother Earth is unlikely to be finished off………….”

END OF EARTH

What I have said, is by and large true.  Definitely there is no well defined calendar date by which Earth or life on earth will be destroyed though there are many stories about it in various religious sects.  But there are a number of scientific estimates about the life of the solar system (based on the mass of the sun, the rate of nuclear fusion processes which generate energy in the sun, and  the ultimate completion of them making sun just a solid mass without any radiation coming out of it) and that is about 5 billion years  away.  Earth also may be affected by this total darkness, frozen seas; no life etc.,

But there are a number of scientific articles (best guess articles bordering on science-fiction) that the human civilisation in the meanwhile would have advanced so much to capture the lights (energy) emitted by the stars and converting them into useable energy on earth.  Human society may still survive in different parts of the Solar system and perhaps outside it and perhaps on the earth too, by creating new habitats…….But these are far, far away………..

For many, many generations from now on, the earth is the only habitat the human beings have to contend with.  That is the reason we need to preserve its environment at the micro level and macro levels.

DANGERS FOR HUMAN SOCIETY

For human beings, especially for individuals, groups and societies, much bigger dangers (present and potential) are due to our own misdeeds such as  polluting the rivers and water bodies (including those underground) can pose serious health problems; so can severe water shortages, if we do not (all of humanity) resort to repeated reuse of recycled waste water for agriculture, industries, domestic, public uses and  also resort to water conservation measures.

If we are rapacious in the use of natural resources and energy,  as part of the developed            human society had been  doing in the past and is doing currently now, the ecological forces of the Earth may hit back.  If humankind is at a continuous war against itself through various sectarian bloodshed as is happening now, through terrorism, several heads-for-one-head types of hate attacks, many more dangers can come.

Though human beings have fought between themselves ever  since their appearance on the Earth, during the twentieth century their technological prowess has become extremely destructive.  The two world wars and subsequent many small “local” wars, including the turmoils that are going on world over (direct wars, civil wars, terrorist wars, etc.,) are much more bloody and ruthless.

Attempts by those who have the technological know how and infrastructure to produce such deadly weapons and their delivery systems along with near-perfect logistics coordination of position location (for attack), communications for command and control etc., to contain these capabilities from proliferating to others outside some exclusive clubs, have miserably failed. Later part of twentieth century say from the 1980’s has been a saga of PROLIFERATION OF LETHAL TECHNOLOGIES.   Incidentally it was also  a saga of globalisation and opening of markets in many  countries including China; India as usual was late by a decade. Whether there is a direct or indirect link between such a global competitive commerce and proliferation, is difficult to assert now.  Further history researches may unfold some facts.

But such human made massacres are sources of terrible dangers to the humanity.  Imagine use of nuclear weapons by non-state actors (or even by “rogue” states); there are many now.  More so, if they resort to bio terrorism through spread of deadly microbes, through “suicide attackers”.

I am pointing out the above only to emphasize that human beings and societies have to control themselves a lot in the coming century.  Ethical leaderships at various levels may be required to contain the challenges from within the human societies (from extremist individuals psychopaths, sects, groups etc.,)

If humanity does not discover less violent methods to contain such deadly elements, human beings, though more prosperous than they were in any other century, have to live in constant fear.

DISASTERS BEYOND HUMAN CONTROL:

It is also good to learn about natural disasters that can devastate human societies, so that over a period of (even decades and centuries) the humanity can learn how to mitigate the damages from such natural events, even if they are not able to prevent them.  Ability to limit the damages will depend upon how accurately one can predict the event in advance.  If it is ahead of one month, it is  great.  If ahead of one week, it is still good.  If it is a few hours before, it is still something useful.  Some natural disasters do not even give an hour’s notice.  That is where scientists have to apply their minds. Not an easy task because most of the current instrumentations and networks are not adequate.  What can be promised as possible findings will remain vague.   But we need tenacious thinkers to break the barriers of current approaches and have a peek at Nature’s methods of working up the initiation of disaster.

Let us look at some of the disasters:

(1)         CYCLONES: Almost an annual feature in many coastal regions especially the eastern coasts; in India east coast can receive two cyclonic seasons during the south west monsoons (rarely) and north-east monsoons (almost regularly).  Thanks to the satellite Meteorology, these are now predictable trackable, accurately, at least a week in advance.  If the ground disaster management systems are in place and regularly exercised, we can prevent human fatalities, injuries,  But damage to the properties cannot be easily controlled as most of them are immovable.  Even mighty nations like USA have been humbled by severe cyclones.  Countries like Japan and Taiwan have learnt to live with severe cyclones, and typhoons.  May be in future, human beings may be able to fire accurate missiles with certain chemicals to reduce the severity of cyclones.  Disaster management systems with cyclones alone occurring  reasonably good in India, though a lot more needs to be done.

(2)         LANDSLIDES: These are against heavy rain related.  Limited to select areas.  Well studied and documented.  Can be mostly controlled by special construction with geotextiles.

(3)         CLOUD BURSTS: Sudden downpour of rain in a local area. Difficult to predict.  If towns, cities etc., have good drainage systems, human deaths can be avoided.  Very small in size compared to other disasters.

(4)         EARTH QUAKES: Can be devastating.  Difficult to predict the exact time and place of occurrence, though lots of scientific research have been done and more are underway.

Recently there have been a number od earth quakes in many parts of the world.  Damages have been large.  Even many human deaths.  They are shown in TV, written about and forgotten soon, except by those who are the victims.  India has been relatively free of it for about a decade.  But let us not be complacent; many parts of India are in seismic zone 5 (that is prone to severe earthquakes).  Japan is a country most of which are in severe earthquake prone areas. It has several technologies to monitor earthquakes(not yet to predict in advance) and warn people to get into relatively safer zones.

In India disaster management systems for earth quake after occurrence is good but are still far behind what it should be especially in taking care of adherence to the building codes in severe seismic zones, as damage preventive measures.

(5)         TSUNAMIS:  These are not new phenomena.  But damage due to them have risen in the recent times as high value buildings have come up near the coasts in many countries including India. Density of population in the coastal zones have gone up too.  The Fukushima nuclear disaster became a dreadful tragedy because of the tsunami waves that followed  earthquake, tsunami and a nuclear meltdown all three combined against  the population living there!  Since many high value assets have been accumulated near coastal areas, global monitoring of tsunamis have become essential as a part of natural disaster management systems.  Earthquake and tsunamis are closely linked; it is therefore equally unpredictable in precise terms for time and location.  Protection against the powerful tsunami waves is much more tougher.

COSMIC DISASTERS

The earlier five items listed are basically earth bound involving earth and its atmosphere.  There are other dangers to  the earth and its living beings from sources outside the earth.  The well known ones are the pieces coming the asteroid belts which lay between Mars and Jupiter.

Space Scientists and astronomies are well aware of these objects and also the meteors which constantly bombard the earth’s surface. If one goes up the terrace in a city or town without much lighting or look at in a village, during the nights, one is sure to see a meteor-bright shooting star.  Sometimes, they come in showers.  But bigger size meteorites hitting the earth is  rare.  Even then the damage may be local.  About two thirds of meteorites fall in the oceans and we are safe!

Not so with asteroids.  About 65 million years ago a 10 km wide asteroid had hit the earth entirely wiping out the then “ruling” species dinosaurs.  It had caused severe climatic changes as sun’s energy would have been cut off for very long periods.

But now asteroids are in the news.  That is not so much because of a small one which was to whiz past the earth about 27000 kms away.  It was a small object about 45 metre wide.  Had it hit an urban area the whole place would have been destroyed though it cannot cause much more than the local area damage.  The dust cannot cut off the sun energy on the earth etc.,  But the damage to the local area especially if it highly populated, will be severe.

27000 km looks far away.  Please remember that the geostationary satellites like our INSAT which provides for telecommunications and  TV and helps in cyclone tracking is about 36000 km away; there are many satellites in that orbit.  If this asteroid called 2012 DA14 by astronomers had been a little higher above the earth, it could have knocked out a few geostationary satellites, disrupting many telecommunication links.  It is also note worthy that last year it was almost missed from astronomical observations because of its speed.

As per the reports available in various dailies and journals, astronomers have so far detected about 9500 such objects called celestial bodies.  Current NASA estimates are that small small asteroids pass near the earth once in about 40 years and hits our planet once in 1200 years.  Note these are long time average estimates.  It is not a timed event.  So earth has its cosmic dangers from asteroids, any time but not too frequently.

There are many researches on asteroids.  Japan is planning a satellite to target an asteroid. During the 21st century more will be known about asteroids; perhaps in the 22nd century, humankind may have the capability to intercept a small asteroid and blow it up before it comes near earth

Coming now to a completely unexpected cosmic event, it was the meteor explosion (weighing about 10 tonnes) over Russia with a blinding flash setting off shockwaves that shattered many windows, blew of electric connections and injured about 1000 persons.  It occurred over a city Chelyabinsk about 1500 km away from Moscow.  Had it been over Moscow, the damage would have been very severe.  To give an idea of its energy, it is reported that the energy released in the atmosphere was about 30 times greater than the force of the nuclear bomb dropped at Hiroshima.

Both this meteor event and whizzing past by the asteroid 2012 DA14 were on the same day Friday February 15,2012.   Astronomers confirm that there is no connection between the two events. But such a meteoric damage is known for the first time; may be because house construction density and use of large amount glasses in windows. Further scientific investigations will throw some light on the subject.

Space agencies and astronomical observatories all over the world are likely to step up investigations on asteroids entering near earth and also about meteors.  Current sighting of the asteroid 2012 DA14 was almost accidental.  Human kind will need a better watch!  Better knowledge about arrival and possible hits, can at least help plan evacuation of the areas concerned.  But fortunately these events are not as frequent as cyclones or even earthquakes.

Already work has started for ‘asteroid watch’, by a University of Hawaii team of astronomers in a project called Atlas:  The Asteroid Terrestrial-Impact Last Alert System.  As per the space Daily report dated Feb 20, 2013, the system is expected to be operational by the end of 2015.  “The team predicts the system will offer a one-week warning of a 50-yard diameter asteroid or a “city killer” and three weeks for a 150 yard-diameter “country killer”.  That is enough time to evacuate the area of people, take measures to protect buildings and other infrastructure and be alert to a tsunami danger generated by ocean impacts” says the report.  More may follow..

DANGERS TO THE  DEVELOPED ECONOMIES:

All the above earth based natural disasters and cosmic perils are common to all countries.  But the economies and societies which have highly developed data, information and communication network as well as high quality electricity supply systems (24X7 for all 365 days) on which most people depend, face some special dangers. Modern developed civilisation depends on high quality electricity and large information flow.  People depend on them.  All economic activities depend on them, not to mention about the internal and external security system.  Everywhere there are SMART SYSTEMS, SMART SERVICES.  Entire command and control systems for military security systems depend upon them.

As we had indicated about one BLACK SWAN in the US National Intelligence Report – 2030 in an earlier article, the real danger is lurking for these sophisticated systems through SOLAR SUPERSTORMS.  These are bursts of very very high energy particles and radiation emitted by sun during some of its most active periods.  These are about billions of tonnes of highly energetic matter travelling at 160934 km/hour.  These are known to have occurred before.  In the past, their impacts were small, ionosphere and therefore radio communications were affected.  Some electricity generating power station may have been disturbed.

It is impossible to predict them more than 30 minutes earlier before it actually happens.  Average estimate of its occurrence is once in 100 to 200 years.  Last known major hit on earth was in 1859.  A group of experts at Royal Academy of Engineers in London consider its occurrence inevitable.

Unlike in the past, now all networks, including electric grids, are well connected, controlled by computers, almost automatically, especially in developed countries. How to recover from such a hit, should it happen, is of major concern.  Unlike meteors etc.,  this hit will not be local. These storm particles will envelope the earth.  Most satellites will be knocked out; forget them, for a moment, most networked electric supplies, as in the developed world, will be down.

The solution is not to go back to primordial systems. Engineers and space scientists are studying various methods of monitoring in order to evolve workaround plans. It is a great challenge for the 21st century.

CONTINENTAL SHIFTS

Our listing will not be complete without mentioning about the continental drift.  The last major readjustment about 65 million years ago gave  the current geography for South Asia and resulted in the raising of Himalayas.  The stresses connected with the drifts are infinitely slow but continuous processes. May be it will take a few hundred million years before another impactful shift takes place.  We need not worry about it now!  We can do very little, if earth decides to shift its layers!!

CONCLUSION

I have listed and described the above possible perils, only to alert us all about the processes of Nature.  Nothing is static.  Scientific progress can reduce disastrous impacts by knowing the events in advance.  During the next century, humans may get some capability to pre-empt some of them. 

Challenges are plenty.  In the meanwhile if right thinking individuals and groups can ponder about how we are all tied up together before the mighty force of Earth, Cosmos and Nature, and look for unifying actions to preserve humanity,  it will give us all a great focus to work jointly for the whole of humanity.

Such an outlook can keep many groups away from the petty warfare and terrorist activities that we are engaged in now. Let us all work for a peaceful and prosperous world, to face the challenges from the Nature, together collectively.

 

Y S Rajan