Could modern humans survive an asteroid impact, like what killed the dinosaurs?

If the bolide had hit just 30 seconds later, we’d be looking at a very different Earth.

We know that an enormous meteorite hit the Gulf of Mexico some 66 million of years ago, shooting dangerous gases, dust, and debris into the upper atmosphere, blotting out the sun, and killing off most of the plant life on Earth. Large herbivores followed and eventually the carnivores that preyed upon them. Note however that one recent, exhaustive study found that many of the dinosaurs were already in decline, way before the bolide or meteorite’s impact.


Had the asteroid hit just 30 seconds later (or sooner), landing more in the Atlantic or Pacific, rather than just off the coast of Mexico, we may have had more, non-avian dinosaurs running around today. Instead, the bolide smashed into the Earth with a force equivalent to ten billion nuclear bombs.

Our ancient, tiny mammalian ancestors survived, their rodent-like bodies cowering as they witnessed one of the greatest mass extinction events ever to occur on our planet. Of course, they probably didn’t have brains developed enough to fully comprehend it. Besides the stench of death filling the air and the massive bodies piling up hither and yon, acid rain fell and volcanic eruptions shook the Earth, sullied the air, and scarred the landscape.

Smallness and requiring little food helped our ancient, shrew-like ancestors survive, which begs the question, could we modern humans make out okay if such an event happened today? Research surrounding another, similar incident suggests so, but it’s complicated. Around 790,000 years ago another asteroid about a kilometer (approx. 0.62 mi) long struck the Earth with such a force that it sent debris hurtling into the atmosphere, which ended up covering one tenth of the Earth’s surface. The crater has yet to be found. Scientists say it would be about 40–100 km (approx. 24-62 mi) in diameter.

The impact site of the meteorite that struck nearly 800,000 years ago hasn’t been found. Credit: By USGS/D. Roddy.

What’s been unearthed are these glassy rocks called tektites. Larger varieties can weigh up to 20 kilograms (44 lbs.).  Scientists recently analyzed these stones. Their findings were published in the journal Geology. This was the largest such event to occur during the time when humans were known to be on Earth and evolving (as they always are). Researchers say the event gives us clues as to whether modern humans could survive a dinosaur-size cataclysm today. The answer is yes, but it would be difficult.

So far, tektites have been found in Australia, Asia, and Antarctica. In this study, astrobiologist and geochemist Aaron Cavosie of Curtin University in Australia, along with colleagues, looked into the chemical makeup of three tektites found in Thailand. Researchers studied minute crystals of zircon, each about the width of a human hair, within the tektites.

These showed signs of the rare mineral reidite, which disappears seconds after being formed. “Reidite requires substantially higher shock pressures to form,” Cavosie said. High temperatures are needed as well. The orientation of the zircon in the tektites points to an impact occurring somewhere in Southeast Asia, probably near Thailand. Though these samples tell a lot, what’s missing is the exact location of the impact site. It’s mind-boggling that such a large crater has yet to be found.

Tektite found in the Libyan Desert. Credit: James St. John. Flickr.

“Our not-too-distant ancestors witnessed this impact,” Cavosie said. “They might have been dragging their knuckles, but an event like the formation of a 50- to 100-kilometer-diameter impact is sure to have gotten their attention.” Further studies examining tektites may yet reveal the crater’s location.

Even though this was a catastrophic event, our ancestors were able to survive and thrive, as the debris shot up into the atmosphere must've caused significant changes to the climate. How this influenced our ancestors and perhaps changed the course of human evolution is difficult to discern, though more clues may help us get a better understanding of that.

So what if a comet or a serious asteroid collided with the Earth? Most scientists say our planet is threatened by such an asteroid about every million years or so. We’re not due for one any time soon. Most of the asteroids out there lie between Mars and Jupiter and won’t threaten Earth ever.

There are thousands though which could potentially hit us. Most are the size of a compact car or smaller and burn up in the atmosphere. A few are a bit larger and could do great damage to say a house or even a city, depending on the size, but wouldn’t threaten all life on Earth or anything.

NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO) tracks near-Earth objects (NEOs) of significant size with the potential to hit our planet. It’s a collaborative effort involving observatories and universities all over the world. The perennial question is whether or not an asteroid looks as if it’s inside the “keyhole,” meaning it has the potential to make impact with Earth.

If a serious meteorite were to hit the Earth, would we survive? Credit: Comfreak, Pixababy.

Besides a collision, a sizeable object passing close by the Earth could throw the planet’s orbit off. So far, deflection strategies haven’t been decided upon. Planting a nuclear bomb inside a potentially hazardous asteroid, or nudging it off course with rockets or a solar sail, are some other the methods that have been proposed.

Should we fail and a large asteroid once again crash into our world, causing a long-term impact winter, most of the plant life would die off within weeks. Large trees could last decades due to a buildup of sugar in their systems and a slow metabolism. Not much life would exist beyond that, save for microbes and small creatures.

Humans could survive if they went deep underground to take advantage of heat found there, or if we built isolated habitats inside domes. Of course, it’s best to safeguard our precious planet. And although attaching a solar sail to an asteroid may sound fantastical, most scientists believe it’s feasible, using technology that’s already available today.

To learn more about how NASA would handle a deadly asteroid, click here:

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Why "nuclear pasta" is the strongest material in the universe

Through computationally intensive computer simulations, researchers have discovered that "nuclear pasta," found in the crusts of neutron stars, is the strongest material in the universe.

Accretion disk surrounding a neutron star. Credit: NASA
Surprising Science
  • The strongest material in the universe may be the whimsically named "nuclear pasta."
  • You can find this substance in the crust of neutron stars.
  • This amazing material is super-dense, and is 10 billion times harder to break than steel.

Superman is known as the "Man of Steel" for his strength and indestructibility. But the discovery of a new material that's 10 billion times harder to break than steel begs the question—is it time for a new superhero known as "Nuclear Pasta"? That's the name of the substance that a team of researchers thinks is the strongest known material in the universe.

Unlike humans, when stars reach a certain age, they do not just wither and die, but they explode, collapsing into a mass of neurons. The resulting space entity, known as a neutron star, is incredibly dense. So much so that previous research showed that the surface of a such a star would feature amazingly strong material. The new research, which involved the largest-ever computer simulations of a neutron star's crust, proposes that "nuclear pasta," the material just under the surface, is actually stronger.

The competition between forces from protons and neutrons inside a neutron star create super-dense shapes that look like long cylinders or flat planes, referred to as "spaghetti" and "lasagna," respectively. That's also where we get the overall name of nuclear pasta.

Caplan & Horowitz/arXiv

Diagrams illustrating the different types of so-called nuclear pasta.

The researchers' computer simulations needed 2 million hours of processor time before completion, which would be, according to a press release from McGill University, "the equivalent of 250 years on a laptop with a single good GPU." Fortunately, the researchers had access to a supercomputer, although it still took a couple of years. The scientists' simulations consisted of stretching and deforming the nuclear pasta to see how it behaved and what it would take to break it.

While they were able to discover just how strong nuclear pasta seems to be, no one is holding their breath that we'll be sending out missions to mine this substance any time soon. Instead, the discovery has other significant applications.

One of the study's co-authors, Matthew Caplan, a postdoctoral research fellow at McGill University, said the neutron stars would be "a hundred trillion times denser than anything on earth." Understanding what's inside them would be valuable for astronomers because now only the outer layer of such starts can be observed.

"A lot of interesting physics is going on here under extreme conditions and so understanding the physical properties of a neutron star is a way for scientists to test their theories and models," Caplan added. "With this result, many problems need to be revisited. How large a mountain can you build on a neutron star before the crust breaks and it collapses? What will it look like? And most importantly, how can astronomers observe it?"

Another possibility worth studying is that, due to its instability, nuclear pasta might generate gravitational waves. It may be possible to observe them at some point here on Earth by utilizing very sensitive equipment.

The team of scientists also included A. S. Schneider from California Institute of Technology and C. J. Horowitz from Indiana University.

Check out the study "The elasticity of nuclear pasta," published in Physical Review Letters.


How a huge, underwater wall could save melting Antarctic glaciers

Scientists think constructing a miles-long wall along an ice shelf in Antarctica could help protect the world's largest glacier from melting.

Image: NASA
Surprising Science
  • Rising ocean levels are a serious threat to coastal regions around the globe.
  • Scientists have proposed large-scale geoengineering projects that would prevent ice shelves from melting.
  • The most successful solution proposed would be a miles-long, incredibly tall underwater wall at the edge of the ice shelves.

The world's oceans will rise significantly over the next century if the massive ice shelves connected to Antarctica begin to fail as a result of global warming.

To prevent or hold off such a catastrophe, a team of scientists recently proposed a radical plan: build underwater walls that would either support the ice or protect it from warm waters.

In a paper published in The Cryosphere, Michael Wolovick and John Moore from Princeton and the Beijing Normal University, respectively, outlined several "targeted geoengineering" solutions that could help prevent the melting of western Antarctica's Florida-sized Thwaites Glacier, whose melting waters are projected to be the largest source of sea-level rise in the foreseeable future.

An "unthinkable" engineering project

"If [glacial geoengineering] works there then we would expect it to work on less challenging glaciers as well," the authors wrote in the study.

One approach involves using sand or gravel to build artificial mounds on the seafloor that would help support the glacier and hopefully allow it to regrow. In another strategy, an underwater wall would be built to prevent warm waters from eating away at the glacier's base.

The most effective design, according to the team's computer simulations, would be a miles-long and very tall wall, or "artificial sill," that serves as a "continuous barrier" across the length of the glacier, providing it both physical support and protection from warm waters. Although the study authors suggested this option is currently beyond any engineering feat humans have attempted, it was shown to be the most effective solution in preventing the glacier from collapsing.

Source: Wolovick et al.

An example of the proposed geoengineering project. By blocking off the warm water that would otherwise eat away at the glacier's base, further sea level rise might be preventable.

But other, more feasible options could also be effective. For example, building a smaller wall that blocks about 50% of warm water from reaching the glacier would have about a 70% chance of preventing a runaway collapse, while constructing a series of isolated, 1,000-foot-tall columns on the seafloor as supports had about a 30% chance of success.

Still, the authors note that the frigid waters of the Antarctica present unprecedently challenging conditions for such an ambitious geoengineering project. They were also sure to caution that their encouraging results shouldn't be seen as reasons to neglect other measures that would cut global emissions or otherwise combat climate change.

"There are dishonest elements of society that will try to use our research to argue against the necessity of emissions' reductions. Our research does not in any way support that interpretation," they wrote.

"The more carbon we emit, the less likely it becomes that the ice sheets will survive in the long term at anything close to their present volume."

A 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine illustrates the potentially devastating effects of ice-shelf melting in western Antarctica.

"As the oceans and atmosphere warm, melting of ice shelves in key areas around the edges of the Antarctic ice sheet could trigger a runaway collapse process known as Marine Ice Sheet Instability. If this were to occur, the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) could potentially contribute 2 to 4 meters (6.5 to 13 feet) of global sea level rise within just a few centuries."

Why the worst part about climate change isn't rising temperatures

The world's getting hotter, and it's getting more volatile. We need to start thinking about how climate change encourages conflict.

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Climate change is usually discussed in terms of how it impacts the weather, but this fails to emphasize how climate change is a "threat multiplier."
  • As a threat multiplier, climate change makes already dangerous social and political situations even worse.
  • Not only do we have to work to minimize the impact of climate change on our environment, but we also have to deal with how it affects human issues today.

Human beings are great at responding to imminent and visible threats. Climate change, while dire, is almost entirely the opposite: it's slow, it's pervasive, it's vague, and it's invisible. Researchers and policymakers have been trying to package climate change in a way that conveys its severity. Usually, they do so by talking about its immediate effects: rising temperature, rising sea levels, and increasingly dangerous weather.

These things are bad, make no mistake about it. But the thing that makes climate change truly dire isn't that Cape Cod will be underwater next century, that polar bears will go extinct, or that we'll have to invent new categories for future hurricanes. It's the thousands of ancillary effects — the indirect pressure that climate change puts on every person on the planet.

How a drought in the Middle East contributed to extremism in Europe

(DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images)

Nigel Farage in front of a billboard that leverages the immigration crisis to support Brexit.

Because climate change is too big for the mind to grasp, we'll have to use a case study to talk about this. The Syrian civil war is a horrific tangle of senseless violence, but there are some primary causes we can point to. There is the longstanding conflicts between different religious sects in that country. Additionally, the Arab Spring swept Syria up in a wave of resistance against authoritarian leaders in the Middle East — unfortunately, Syrian protests were brutally squashed by Bashar Al-Assad. These, and many other factors, contributed to the start of the Syrian civil war.

One of these other factors was drought. In fact, the drought in that region — it started in 2006 — has been described as the "worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilization began in the Fertile Crescent many millennia ago." Because of this drought, many rural Syrians could no longer support themselves. Between 2006 and 2009, an estimated 1.5 million Syrians — many of them agricultural workers and farmers — moved into the country's major cities. With this sudden mixing of different social groups in a country where classes and religious sects were already at odds with one another, tensions rose, and the increased economic instability encouraged chaos. Again, the drought didn't cause the civil war — but it sure as hell helped it along.

The ensuing flood of refugees to Europe is already a well-known story. The immigration crisis was used as a talking point in the Brexit movement to encourage Britain to leave the EU. Authoritarian or extreme-right governments and political parties have sprung up in France, Italy, Greece, Hungary, Slovenia, and other European countries, all of which have capitalized on fears of the immigration crisis.

Why climate change is a "threat multiplier"

This is why both NATO and the Pentagon have labeled climate change as a "threat multiplier." On its own, climate change doesn't cause these issues — rather, it exacerbates underlying problems in societies around the world. Think of having a heated discussion inside a slowly heating-up car.

Climate change is often discussed in terms of its domino effect: for example, higher temperatures around the world melt the icecaps, releasing methane stored in the polar ice that contributes to the rise in temperature, which both reduces available land for agriculture due to drought and makes parts of the ocean uninhabitable for different animal species, wreaking havoc on the food chain, and ultimately making food more scarce.

Maybe we should start to consider climate change's domino effect in more human and political terms. That is, in terms of the dominoes of sociopolitical events spurred on by climate change and the missing resources it gobbles up.

What the future may hold

(NASA via Getty Images)

Increasingly severe weather events will make it more difficult for nations to avoid conflict.

Part of why this is difficult to see is because climate change does not affect all countries proportionally — at least, not in a direct sense. Germanwatch, a German NGO, releases a climate change index every year to analyze exactly how badly different countries have been affected by climate change. The top five most at-risk countries are Haiti, Zimbabwe, Fiji, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam. Notice that many of these places are islands, which are at the greatest risk for major storms and rising sea levels. Some island nations are even expected to literally disappear — the leaders of these nations are actively making plans to move their citizens to other countries.

But Germanwatch's climate change index is based on weather events. It does not account for the political and social instability that will likely result. The U.S. and many parts of Europe are relatively low on the index, but that is precisely why these countries will most likely need to deal with the human cost of climate change. Refugees won't go from the frying pan into the fire: they'll go to the closest, safest place available.

Many people's instinctive response to floods of immigrants is to simply make borders more restrictive. This makes sense — a nation's first duty is to its own citizens, after all. Unfortunately, people who support stronger immigration policies tend to have right-wing authoritarian tendencies. This isn't always the case, of course, but anecdotally, we can look at the governments in Europe that have stricter immigration policies. Hungary, for example, has extremely strict policies against Muslim immigrants. It's also rapidly turning into a dictatorship. The country has cracked down on media organizations and NGOs, eroded its judicial system's independence, illegalized homelessness, and banned gender studies courses.

Climate change and its sociopolitical effects, such as refugee migration, aren't some poorer country's problem. It's everyone's problem. Whether it's our food, our homes, or our rights, climate change will exact a toll on every nation on Earth. Stopping climate change, or at least reducing its impact, is vitally important. Equally important is contending with the multifaceted threats its going to throw our way.