Thursday, January 31, 2008

End of the world scenarios

Donald Sensing surveys popular scientific literature and discovers various plausible explanations for catastrophes in the earth's past -- and dangers in the distant future. It turns out that on a planetary scale as well as on a personal, the real danger is often unsuspected. Science Daily, for example, cites a NASA study suggesting that methane released by non-anthropogenic "Global Warming" 55 million years ago (when there was no human civilization that we know of) released methane into the air causing the atmosphere to act like a giant fuel-air explosive.

Boom. Mass extinction came as a surprise to those it overtook. And then we are told that a massive hydrogen cloud is heading for earth, and that in 40 million years it will interact explosively with our galaxy. That in fact, "the leading edge of this cloud is already interacting with gas from our Galaxy," according to astronomers. Had the cloud come before man developed the technology to detect its arrival how could we know?

The first question that arises in connection with these observations is why the 'precautionary principle' beloved of environmentalists does not apply to all possible disasters, just some. After all, if the earth is doomed to encounter a hydrogen cloud in 40 million years, which is a short time in comparison to the life of the planet and its biosphere, isn't it time to accelerate our technological development so that we can develop the starships to get away? After all 40 million years may not be enough lead time, given the engineering challenges that must be faced to evacuate from the vastness of the threat. Admittedly extinction by hydrogen cloud is an unlikely, or at least incalculable danger. But the precautionary principle says that if some danger exists you have to prepare for it. My guess is the precautionary principle is always trumped by opportunism principle. Dangers which can't be used as opportunities to advance a political agenda are not covered by the precautionary principle. And therefore there won't be a UN Conference on Hydrogen Clouding any time soon.

But the second question is a little harder to deal with. How can we defend earth against unknown unknowns? Science is discovering new dangers all the time. Why only fifty years ago nobody heard of "Global Warming". Isn't it possible that Gaia may be done in by the peril we don't see coming? The limits to our knowledge guarantee that risk is irreducible. There are some precautions we can't take.

So maybe we should kick back, open a bottle of beer and be content with our measures for the day. "Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof." Or does having that attitude make bigots of us or worse increase our carbon footprint?


Blogger LarryD said...

I saw an episode of MegaDisasters on that one, highly speculative, to say the least. I note that the article mentions a computer model, but doesn't really give the details. Like whether or not they based the initial conditions on any real world data, or did they just assume that the methane was there?

GIGO (Garbage In, Garbage Out).

As for the hydrogen cloud, yeah it's very massive, but also very tenuous. Solar wind will probably keep it from having any effect on our solar system. It's not as if there aren't clouds of dust and gas in our own galaxy anyway, in fact we're moving through one now.

1/31/2008 07:11:00 AM  
Blogger Peter said...

More interesting than the apocalyptic scenarios themselves are the reasons that the End of Time is such a popular topic.

It seems that entire cultures go through cyclical periods of optimism and pessimism and then perform accordingly to actualize the mood. American popular culture is crude and dark. Language, music and art have a fascination with bodily functions. Politicians, journalists, lawyers, and now even scientists are automatically assumed to be self-serving liars. Modern philosophy tells us that we are alone, weak and defenseless.

A new Dark Age I suppose. But this too shall pass.

1/31/2008 07:18:00 AM  
Blogger Buddy Larsen said...

We feel helpless because we are, so long as we are bound to the planet. There've been several major extinctions already, and only one of them due to something besides earth itself. As long as we're not busy hunting & gathering 24/7, we'll fret a bit. This seems normal, considering that the species is something that has just recently sprung up, well within the last one-thousandth of the earth's lifetime -- and strictly in response to always-changing local conditions.

1/31/2008 08:02:00 AM  
Blogger James Kielland said...

Peter said something which sparked a thought I've long had idling in the back of my mind.

Sometimes I think that American culture has a curious bi-polar quality to it. We tend to have these swings of incredible optimism mixed with an impending sense of catastrophe. It's quite amazing the resonance the phrase "Pearl Harbor" has on our national psyche. From it's infamous use in the PNAC document which supposedly foreshadowed a government orchestrated 9-11 by some people to our fears of a "Pearl Harbor in Space" or even cyberspace, we have this feeling that some kind of catastrophe is just looming in front of us that we are going to miss because of our own laziness, self-absorption, and so forth.

On the other hand, we really have the sense that there is nothing that we can't do. This manifests itself in different ways with different people, of course.

As a student, something I found very curious about my left-wing teachers/professors was they would frequently write off American society as being idiotic and incompetent and then suddenly regard, if only by implication, American society as being able to do anything. All the problems in the world, from poverty to violence to propped up dictatorships were America's fault. The implication was that if we changed the rest of the world would just be wonderful. The idea that much of what happens in the world is beyond our control didn't seem to be entertained often. In essence, I felt my lefty teachers simultaneously overplayed and underplayed our capabilities.

the GWOT also brings up this dynamic. We have a number of people who frequent this forum who seem absolutely convinced that Islam is going to take over due to our self-absorption. They are simultaneously seemingly convinced that victory against Islam is assured if only we will recognize Islam as the implacable, unalterable, demonically evil force they insist it is. Another side seems to insist that we are so powerful and capable that our only threat from Islam is of our own doing. Curiously, both sides seem to reject that where Islam goes it might go based on its own quirks and characteristics, both insist that ultimate we are in control.

In our civil law, we insist that all of our products be absolutely safe, because people are just so darned ignorant and foolish and fallible that they are likely to be hurt. And yet many of those same people insist that others in our society must be nearly infallible and omniscient in their ability to predict possible hazards in the products and services that they offer, foreseeing every possible misuse that fallible people could come up with.

1/31/2008 08:07:00 AM  
Blogger Ari Tai said...

We don’t have to anticipate Yellowstone cooking off (we’re overdue) for our end-of-the-world, just our own death. That’s a literal end-of-the-world and it should inform our politics and policies. What system should we support that gives the average another five pain-free years of life? Since there is no one answer, and the factors most important in extending life span in the past has been the general wealth, all we are left with is relying on the faith that is the random walk of the market (v. depending on parents, pastor, king, dictator or the tyranny of the majority). Unfettered free-enterprise, by a free-people who own themselves and whatever produce. Those that interfere are ignorantly or purposefully shortening the time to the end-of-the-world – along some continuum from absolute free-will to the depths of communitarian harmony and lock-step.

If / when we don’t survive, in those last moments we’ll say “if only..” (some will say it doesn’t matter.. better to die than tolerate the unhappiness markets create)

1/31/2008 09:11:00 AM  
Blogger MEANA55 said...


I don't see anything curious or contradictory in the arguments of your lefty professors in school. But that's because I hold a dim view of the left.

IMO, the grand struggle of mankind in modern times is the war between collectivists and individualists.

The cacophony of conflicting ideas is made worse because the the opposite sides argue past each other. My admittedly biased opinion is that this is simply because the collectivists are self-deluded, hidebound by logical fallacy, and therefore incapable of reason. A slightly fairer view is that there are always at least five things that can be argued in any political discussion:

1. How things were

2. How things are

3. How things got from "were" to "are"

4. Where we need to be

5. How we get from "are" to "need to be"

As a leave-me-the-hell-alone conservative, I think things are pretty good and they will get better by rolling-back the collectivist excesses of the last 150 years.

The lefties obsess over item 5, and they will gleefully fill-in items 1-4 with anything at hand that lets them call the shots in their great leaps forward, five-year plans, wars on poverty, single-payer universal coverage health schemes, or internationalist foreign policy kumbaya whirled peas fantasies.

I know full well that my picture is not by any means a charitable interpretation of the left, but this representation best fits the evidence. The average lefty is nothing more than a teen who just got his driver's license. He doesn't care where he's been, how the car works, or where he's going. All that matters to him is that he gets to sit in the driver's seat.

1/31/2008 09:22:00 AM  
Blogger Buddy Larsen said...

meana55 -- love it. The kid also has no idea what it took to produce the car, depends on someone else to pay for it and deliver its fuel, cannot repair it when he breaks it, and yet for all that is certain to complain about its imperfections, in order to among other things mask his lack of gratitude for his use of it.

1/31/2008 09:45:00 AM  
Blogger henkeeper said...

The precautionary principle may be questionable at both the macro and the micro levels.

Two thoughts from Laurence Gonzales’ book, Deep Survival

Perrow’s Normal Accidents, first published in 1984 is a work of seminal importance because of its unusual thesis: That, in certain kinds of [tightly coupled complex] systems, large accidents, though rare, are both inevitable and normal. The accidents are a characteristic of the system itself, he says. His book was even more controversial because he found that efforts to make those systems safer, especially by technological means, made the systems more complex and therefore more prone to accidents.

Not long ago, when I was flying the aerobatics contest circuit, a friend of mine Jan Jones, was going about her ordinary business. She had started with the International Aerobatics Club at about the same time I did. Jan was an otherwise farily ordinary person: She went to the grocery store; took a shower every morning, watched TV, did laundry. She and her husband went to the movies. Like me, Jan was a judge, and sometimes we'd sit together while others flew. Then one day she took off, crashed her Pitts, and died. People talked gravely about the unnecessary risks she'd taken. But another friend of mine was doing the very same everyday errands and activities but not flying, not taking the risks. In fact, she lived an extremely quiet life. Then one day she fell ill and went to the doctor and a few weeks later was dead from glioblastoma. Surviviors know, whether they are conscious of it or not, that to live at all is to fly upside down (640 people died in 1999 while choking on food; 320 drowned in the bathtub). You are already flying upside down. You might as well turn on the smoke and have some fun.

1/31/2008 10:20:00 AM  
Blogger MEANA55 said...


Thanks for fleshing-out my metaphor :-) You've pointed-out things that I hadn't considered yet ring so true.


I neglected to tie my rant back to the OP. My unstated point was that trying to trap greenies with their own "precautionary principle" is fruitless since, in a lefty's twisted reality, a principle's only purpose is to get/keep him in the driver's seat, and turning it against him is [with stomping feet and through welling tears] NOT FAIR!!!!

1/31/2008 10:58:00 AM  
Blogger Buddy Larsen said...

Wanna fight the terrorists?
>>bring the troops home

Want energy independence?
>>attack domestic exploration & nuclear power

Want to heal the sick?
>>attack Big Pharma's incentives to to R&D

Want to help the poor?
>>attack, discourage, and tax job creating activities

yep -- babies.

1/31/2008 01:00:00 PM  
Blogger Mad Fiddler said...

Methane is found currently in fairly large submarine deposits termed "methane hydrates" or "methane clathrates." Such gas hydrates are described in a NASA article as molecules of gas locked in a "cage" of water molecules, with the mass forming in conditions of low temperature and high pressure. Deposits have been found in significant concentration in benthic sea bed sediment layers (at depths below about a thousand feet.) In some places, such as concentrations off the West coast of Canada, the masses are great enough to encourage speculation that frozen methane for fuel could be a profitable target for mining operations. (It's also found in permafrost layers, so it doesn't seem to depend on its stability entirely from deep sea pressures.)

The idea that exploding oceanic methane hydrate has caused massive global catastrophe was the subject of a recent study jointly conducted by staff from Oregon State University, Scripps Institute (UCND) University of Victoria and UofColorado. Their study "...largely ruling out major bursts of methane from seafloor deposits during a period of global warming..." pretty well discounts that sort of scenario.

There has been responsible conjecture (i.e., by trained scientists) that occasional sub-sea disturbances have released large enough quantities of the ice and gas to endanger surface shipping.

The idea is that as the methane rises falling pressure lets the gas bubble out of solution. Approaching the surface, the Methane creates a froth of bubbles, and if the mass of bubbles is large enough it substantially reduces the density of the seawater. If a large enough mass of bubbles happens to come up around a vessel, could swallow it entire. That is, the mixture of methane bubbles and seawater are so much lighter than the hull of any ship that the weight of the ship would be too much for the amount of froth it displaces. Its bouyancy effectively is negated, and it drops outta sight. I believe there were experiments conducted with scale models of oil tankers, in which bubbles were released below them, and the ship models just disappeared.

You've heard of "rogue waves."

Now there are "Rogue Bubble Baths."

Who-da thunk it?

It's interesting to ponder how the methane GOT there.

1/31/2008 01:25:00 PM  
Blogger Buddy Larsen said...

Maybe shallow-sea deposition during the Carboniferous Era --?

IIRC, our coal, gas, and oil originated such, the difference in them today (whether oil, gas, or coal) being a function of the intervening pressures & temperatures.

1/31/2008 01:46:00 PM  
Blogger Jay said...

For a good science fiction/disaster novel about what could happen if a large quantity of that undersea methane came up all at once, check out Mother of Storms by John Barnes.

1/31/2008 03:22:00 PM  
Blogger BetaCygni said...

A much more likely catastrophe (that NASA is well aware of) is being hit by an asteroid or comet. We know that is going to happen and kill a lot of people someday unless we figure out how to stop it. Too bad the same amount of funding being thrown at global warming isn't available for researching near Earth objects and testing ways to deflect their path away from Earth.

1/31/2008 03:32:00 PM  
Blogger newscaper said...

"I believe there were experiments conducted with scale models of oil tankers, in which bubbles were released below them, and the ship models just disappeared."

I've seen 'em, conducted in a swimming pool with drilled PVC to create the froth. Freaky cool.

As to learning how to deflect asteroid/comet impacts, check out the B612 Foundation.

1/31/2008 05:14:00 PM  
Blogger tckurd said...

The Galactic neighborhood has been a huge study effort of mine recently. Our area in space - the Orion arm of the Milky Way, is of very low density in the interstellar medium.

The area in which we are headed - estimated at 27000-65000 years from now, has 10X the ISM density.

The impact of this on the heliosphere is prophesized to be a shrinking of the heliosphere, and changes to the sun's magnetic influence. As the heliosphere shrinks, Keiper belt objects no doubt will start to move around, and the inner solar system will go through a period of impacts.

27000 years or so is a lot more reasonable than millions of years, and assumes of course we can get past our current hurdles.

We really don't have that much time to colonize this quadrant.

1/31/2008 05:20:00 PM  
Blogger Zenster said...

Mad Fiddler: It's interesting to ponder how the methane GOT there.

We all know that the dinosaurs were realllly big critters. Well, so were their farts.

2/03/2008 05:08:00 PM  

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