A few nights ago, when I was just about at the peak of my feeling-sorry-for-myself bell curve, since we’ve had to put up with snow/ice/power outages for a couple of weeks now, I picked up two science magazines that helped me put things in perspective. In the November 22 issue of New Scientist (a great weekly science magazine published in Great Britain, so you get a continental, meaning liberal/anti-Bush, perspective in the editorials) I read the cheerily titled piece, “Doomsday Scenario.”
Here I learned that all of humanity’s advances during the last 10,000 years have occurred during wonderfully temperate, and quite rare, climatic conditions. Which, of course, goes a long way toward explaining why humanity advanced so much in this period. Thus we have an inherent, and understandable, lackadaisical attitude toward the Earth’s climate. All that we have known is, basically, good times weather-wise, taking the planet as a whole. So we think, “this will continue,” just as we expect that the sun will rise tomorrow, because it has every day of our life.
Well, almost certainly the sun indeed will rise. But in an amazingly few number of days it could start rising to start a damn cold day—right here in Oregon, in the middle of summer. The article says that “the Earth’s climate during the era of ice ages had two ‘stable states.’ There was no smooth transition between them. The planet simply jumped periodically from one state to the other.” Great. If ten days of ice and snow bum me out, ten years would put me completely over the edge. Which, apparently, is what humanity may be doing to the Earth’s climate: producing relatively small changes that, nonetheless, push conditions over the edge into some huge global effects—just as slipping a few inches on some pebbles when you’re walking along the edge of a high cliff can cause you to fall hundreds of feet in an instant.
That article was sobering enough. But then I picked up the December issue of Scientific American and read the even scarier, “The Day the World Burned.” That was some 65 million years ago, when an asteroid or comet crashed into what now is the Yucatan area in Mexico, producing an explosion equivalent to 100 trillion tons of TNT. Much of the Earth was heated hundreds of degrees, which, not surprisingly, had some pretty nasty environmental effects—even worse than what all the people driving SUV’s have produced. In fact, the article says that the forest fires produced by the impact, which resulted from all the flaming chunks falling back into the atmosphere, produced carbon equal to 3,000 years of modern fossil-fuel burning. Hence, mucho greenhouse warming took place, and the dinosaurs took a powder, to be replaced by mammals, like us. So 100 trillion tons of TNT can lead to some nice effects, if you’re willing to wait 65 million years.
My point, if I have one, might be this: we have no idea what sort of unbelievable catastrophes await us, “us” being all of humanity. The past 10,000 years and, more broadly, the past 65 million years, have lulled us into believing that tomorrow will be like today. But, one day it won’t. And, what then? That’s when we’ll see what humanity is made of. Catastrophes, large or small, test our spirit, and our mettle. They also can bring us together. We talked to some neighbors during the snow/ice storm that we hadn’t spoken with in a long time. That was nice. It’s good to be reminded that as much as we might find our fellow humans difficult to deal with, ice ages and asteroids are much less companionable. Last point: enjoy today to the fullest, for tomorrow could be much colder, or much hotter.