Super-eruptions, asteroid impacts and cosmic winters—such cataclysmic events, known as gee-gees, are no longer science fiction. The tsunami has helped focus minds on the potential dangers. We must act nowby Bill McGuire / June 19, 2005 / Leave a comment
London, 30th July 2030. The sky is a menacing iron grey, and has been so since soon after the cataclysmic super-eruption in the US five months earlier. Snow lies half a metre deep on Oxford Street, and on the frozen Thames crowds of men, women and children jostle at stalls to barter for dubious meat scraps to supplement their meagre state rations. Across the planet, millions of people have already died from the cold, while hundreds of millions starve as harvests continue to fail. A combination of freezing conditions and civil strife has triggered the breakdown of society in many countries, and the global village has fragmented into a million isolated hamlets, each faced with a daily battle for survival.
Drawing a line between science fiction and science fact, or between scaremongering and informing, can be notoriously difficult, and never more so than when dealing with those rare but inevitable cataclysmic events capable of tearing our comfortable world apart. The horror of Boxing day 2004, when more than a third of a million lives were lost in the space of a few hours, provided a glimpse of the reality. A few months later, the BBC television drama Supervolcano presented us with another taste of what we may face in the future. Reactions to the two events, one factual, one fictional, were contradictory. On the one hand, the Asian tsunami was lamented as impossible to predict or prepare for, a bolt from the blue. On the other hand, the BBC was charged by some with scaremongering for highlighting the terrible consequences of a future volcanic super-eruption in Wyoming’s Yellowstone national park. Yet it is hardly surprising that we are caught napping by extreme geophysical events if attempts to educate and inform about the threat they pose attract such hostility.
Whether we ignore them or not, geophysical phenomena far more lethal and destructive than the Asian tsunami are on their way. Volcanic super-eruptions, asteroid and comet impacts and ocean-wide tsunamis large enough to dwarf the Boxing day waves have left their imprint on our planet’s surface during its 4.6bn-year history, and they are not going to hold back simply because we have arrived on the scene. Furthermore, the hazardous events associated with human-induced climate change could make matters worse. These include a dramatic slowdown or shutdown of the Gulf stream and associated ocean currents, leading to bitter winters in Europe and…