Asteroid or meteor impact is one of the most fascinating and frightening end of the world scenarios. Although big impacts are rare, smaller impacts have occurred many times in Earth’s 4.5 billion year history. According to many experts, it’s not a question of “if” a cosmic impact will occur – it’s a question of “when.”
The other question of course is “how big.” The size of the object impacting the Earth is what determines the extent of damage.
Tracking NEOs…But, No Worries
Asteroids and meteors that enter the inner solar system are collectively known as Near Earth Objects or NEOs. Today, they pose a significant enough level of danger that several government programs are in place to map the orbits of large NEOs. You can find out more about the equipment and technology these programs use to track NEOs at these sites:
- Lowell Near Earth Object Search (LONEOS)
- Lincoln Near Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR)
- Catalina Sky Survey
- Near-Earth Asteroid Tracking (NEAT)
NASA’s Near Earth Object Program provides statistics on NEO Close Approaches, Potential Hazards and other interesting data accumulated through research. It’s a great resource for learning more about how NEOs are studied. You may find NASA’s statistics and general info reassuring – or you may find yourself wondering, “Why are they putting so much effort into something we don’t need to worry about?”
Regardless of how inclusive or accurate NASA’s information is, it seems safe to say, asteroid and meteor impacts are scientific facts. Big impacts are rare, but today there is convincing evidence that NEO collisions are at least partly responsible for mass extinctions on Earth, including the disappearance of dinosaurs. It’s also a fact that in 1994, fragments of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 as large as 2 km in diameter crashed into the planet Jupiter. Had Shoemaker-Levy Nine smashed into Earth, it’s estimated impact explosions would have destroyed humanity in minutes.
What Happens If the Big One Hits?
If you’ve seen “Deep Impact” or “Armageddon,” you’re familiar with what to expect from this Extinction Level Event. If an object is large enough, the explosion created at impact could burn away the atmosphere. Much of the Earth’s surface would turn to molten rock. Volcanoes, earthquakes and tsunamis off the scale of anything in the history of humanity would likely be widespread, causing massive destruction. It’s very likely millions would die as cities crumbled into oblivion.
The effects of NEO collision on a grand-scale would extend beyond the immediate destruction. It’s also likely Earth would be covered with a layer of burnt carbon, the sun would be blackened, and the sky would remain pitch-black for many years. This would be due to the massive dark cloud of debris likely to be hurled into the stratosphere.
As you might expect, temperatures would plummet with no sunlight, and the Earth’s surface would freeze. Plants would die, and so would animals relying on vegetation for survival…and those relying on the animals relying on the vegetation…you get the idea.
Post-NEO Impact Survival
Could anyone survive an event like this? If you were holed up in a bunker or cave with enough of a food stash and the right supplies, perhaps you could. Earth wouldn’t be likely to recover quickly from this event, however. Whether or not humanity would become extinct or manage to survive in the long run would depend on a variety of factors.
You may find considering the end of the world by NEO impact interesting, terrifying, or both. If you always believed there was some sort of “space shield” or big plan in place to prevent the Earth’s destruction by cosmic collision, you might be disappointed or alarmed to learn, there really is no plan. The government’s not going to protect or save you. If a big meteor or asteroid smashes into Earth, it’s likely the world (including humanity) will end.
But the possibility of survival does plant a seed of hope. Today, that hope rests in the hands of those already taking action to prepare for survival in world-ending disaster scenarios. Once again, it’s up to individuals to decide how likely it is this scenario will occur in their lifetimes, as well as how motivated they feel to try to survive it.
If you’ve got some time on your hands and you’d like to learn more about NEO impact, its history, likelihood and potential survival, you might want to check out this video: