TCS Daily

Catastrophes and Their Cures

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - December 27, 2004 12:00 AM

A killer asteroid is on the way. Or maybe not. As I write this column, Asteroid 2004 MN is projected to have a roughly 1-in-42.5 chance of striking the Earth. By the time you read this, the odds number -- which is being continually revised as new data come in and uncertainties about the asteroid's precise position and path are resolved -- may have gone up, or may have dropped to zero.

Regardless, this is at least a close call, and should also serve as a wake-up call: Asteroid impacts aren't just the stuff of science-fiction novels and Hollywood special-effects extravaganzas. This stuff is real. But there's worse news: The asteroids that we see may be less troubling than the ones that we're missing, as this report illustrates:

"Astronomers spotted an asteroid this week after it had flown past Earth on a course that took it so close to the planet it was below the orbits of some satellites. . . .

"The asteroid passed just under the orbits of geostationary satellites, which at 22,300 miles (36,000 kilometers) altitude are the highest manmade objects circling Earth. Most other satellites, along with the International Space Station, circle the planet at just a few hundred miles up.

"2004 YD5 is the second closest pass of an asteroid ever observed by telescope, according to the Asteroid/Comet Connection, a web site that monitors space rock discoveries. The closest involved a rock that flew by last March and was not announced until August."

This asteroid wouldn't have been a threat -- it was too small -- but it serves to demonstrate that there's a lot of stuff out there, and we don't have a very good handle on it. And, as Leonard David noted a couple of years ago, smallish asteroid impacts pose another sort of risk:

"Military strategists and space scientists that wonder and worry about a run-in between Earth and a comet or asteroid have additional worries in these trying times. With world tensions being the way they are, even a small incoming space rock, detonating over any number of political hot-spots, could trigger a country's nuclear response convinced it was attacked by an enemy."

Yes. Of course, as I write about the potential dangers posed by asteroids, a very real event -- an earthquake and tsunami that has killed large numbers of people along the coast of the Indian Ocean -- has just taken place. And that raises some questions: How much effort should we put into preparing against things like asteroid strikes, versus preparation for more earthbound disasters? And, if we decide to do more to prepare against tsunamis and earthquakes, how are we to go about it?

I don't know the answers to these questions, but I do have some thoughts. First, it may actually be cheaper to prepare against an asteroid strike: The first step, monitoring the heavens for threats, is relatively cheap and promises to do some good -- certainly it's likely to produce more warning than we can get before earthquakes and tsunamis. Later stages, involving the interception of dangerous asteroids, etc., will cost more, but since as far as we know there's no way at all to prevent earthquakes or tsunamis, they'd still be comparatively cheap, I suppose.

But this weekend's deaths were as much a result of poverty and inattention as of earth movement. Poverty, of course, leads people to live along the waterline in ramshackle housing, like the washed-away Indian fisherman described in this report:

"Lots of fishermen live on the beach with their wives and babies in tiny little tents they make from branches and cloth. Their heavy canoe-like boats rest on logs just at the water line and you can walk past them watching them take little fish from their nets. These people would have been washed away."

With this, as with much else, it's better to be rich. Inattention is partly the result of poverty -- rich nations can worry about threats like asteroid impacts, while poor nations can't even worry about tsunamis. And, in fact, inattention played a role here:

"None of the countries most severely affected - including India, Thailand, Indonesia and Sri Lanka - had a tsunami warning mechanism or tidal gauges to alert people to the wall of water that followed a massive earthquake, said Waverly Person of the USGS National Earthquake Information Centre.

"'Most of those people could have been saved if they had had a tsunami warning system in place or tide gauges,' he said yesterday.

"'And I think this will be a lesson to them,' he said, referring to the governments of the devastated countries.

"Person also said that because large tsunamis, or seismic sea waves, are extremely rare in the Indian Ocean, people were never taught to flee inland after they felt the tremors of an earthquake."

A threat that hadn't appeared recently was discounted, with tragic results. Let's not make the same mistake where asteroid impacts are concerned.

Over the longer run, of course, the best protection against catastrophes, whether foreseen or unforeseen, is a society that is rich enough, and diverse enough, to be well-prepared for all sorts of contingencies. Which means that economic growth, and the freedom that produces it, may be the best guarantor of safety for us all. A rich society can afford to worry about things that a poorer one wouldn't have the resources to think about. A rich society can take steps to prevent disasters before they happen. And a rich society is better positioned to survive disasters once they occur, even if they are completely unforeseen, or unforeseeable.

Where survival is concerned, rich is better. That's something to keep in mind when people describe economic growth as "anti-human."


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