Printed on: December 27, 2012

Nature

Doomsday for life on Earth easier to arrange

Terry Thomas
Post Register

It takes a lot to get me to laugh out loud this time of year, but the Mayan calendar cartoon did it.

Looking at the stone calendar, one Mayan asks the one holding the chisel, "Why nothing after 2012?" The carver replies, "No more Twinkies."

Thank goodness even a truly cataclysmic event like that was insufficient to snuff us out and we are all alive and well one week after the predicted doomsday.

There seldom seems to be a shortage of doomsday predictions. It is some sort of macabre game played throughout the world. They usually take one of two forms: that the planet will end or life on it will end because of some doomsday event. Well, the good news is that this planet is not so easy to kill. It is a 1,000-trillion metric tons of iron and is a pretty tough character. The bad news is that life on the planet is far more tenuous.

Look back about 65 million years to the mass extinction of the dinosaurs to understand those statements.

Scientists still parry and joust over what, exactly, killed 90 percent of the plants and 80 percent of the animal life in short order, but the extinction did occur.

There are two main competing theories: a super volcano or a massive asteroid strike. There is strong evidence for both.

The asteroid strike theory comes from evidence found in Mexico, where a 110-mile-wide crater (that is farther than from Idaho Falls to the Utah border) was discovered on the Yucatan Peninsula. It is estimated that the meteor that made the crater was at least six miles in diameter. It was something less than a BB hitting a large beach ball, but it packed a wallop -- about 1 billion Hiroshima-class atom bombs' worth. Scientific modeling predicts that 1,000-foot-high tsunamis, global forest fires, earthquakes, thick clouds of dust and ash that blocked the sun and chilled the Earth and toxic changes to the atmosphere all combined in a massive event. And later evidence has shown that there may have been other asteroid strikes around the same time that may have contributed as well.

By 2010, and after extensive analysis, the meteor theory enthusiasts thought they had put the other theory, that of a super volcano near Mumbai, India, to bed.

But the volcano theory advocates returned fire in 2012, "proving" that their theory was the only one that could stand close scientific scrutiny.

Volcano theorists claim that massive volcanic activity spewed lava across 1 million square miles of India right at the time of the mass extinction event. The rapid eruption of these vast lava fields, called the Deccan Traps, flooded the atmosphere with CO2 and triggered rapid greenhouse warming along with chemical changes in the atmosphere and oceans that led to the end of the dinosaurs.

Neither event came close to destroying the Earth. In fact, both helped to shape it into what it is today, but either scenario could have been responsible for changing forever the creatures and plants on its face.

Bottomline: Destroying the planet is tough, destroying life not so hard. Any influence that dramatically changes the climate and the atmosphere can do it. It makes me wonder whether the Industrial Revolution was the beginning of the next doomsday.