Friday, October 30, 2009

Was it a meteor strike?

Today in class we read an excerpt of a National Geographic article on how a meteor strike could cause the Apocalypse. If you want to read the entire article, click here. The date of the catastrophic meteor strike has been updated to 2068. Check out Dr. Tholen's latest findings.

One of the scientists featured in the article was Dr. David Tholen, who is the uncle of English 10 teacher Ms. Rachel Tholen Hatten. So Ms. Hatten contacted her uncle for more details about what the world would be like so that we could prove or disprove that Cormac McCarthy thought a meteor strike would cause the end of the world as we know it.

Here's the email response from Dr. Tholen:

From: David Tholen
To: Rachel Tholen Hatten
Sent: Mon, October 19, 2009 1:16:11 AM
Subject: Re: Meteor strike

Ms. Hatten: Question for you. Next week, I'll start teaching Cormac McCarthy's novel, The Road, to my sophomores. I don't know if you've read it,

Dr. Tholen: Nope, haven't read it.

Ms. Hatten: It's the story of a father and son struggling to stay alive in a post-apocalyptic world. McCarthy never explicitly says what the cataclysmic event was that destroyed the earth and civilization, but I think it was probably a meteor strike. When you have a second, could you email me a description of what the world would be like if Earth suffered a major meteor strike, both short and long-term effects?

Dr. Tholen: Well, a lot depends on the size of the strike. We had a strike last October over the northern Sudan, but all we got out of it was a bright flash and a nice collection of Ureilite meteorites. A strike the size of the one that killed off the dinosaurs raised enough dust into the
stratosphere to block out sunlight for years. If you've ever seen the sky after a major volcanic eruption, you might begin to imagine what it's like, only many times worse. Also, it's believed that a major firestorm would be triggered by the impact, generating a lot of soot that would remain in the lower part of the atmosphere for a shorter amount of time. With sunlight blocked off, photosynthesis stops, and plants die out. Without plants for food, livestock starts to die out.
Without livestock for food, people start to die out. It becomes a fight over dwindling food supplies. Very much the sort of thing imagined for the so-called "nuclear winter." Unlike nuclear winter, where radioactivity can persist for a long time, depending on the isotopes producing the radiation, asteroid winter lasts only a few years. As the atmosphere begins to clear, the Earth starts to warm up again. But wait! The impact released a huge amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, from the carbonate locked in a lot of bedrock. Now we've got the greenhouse effect going, and the Earth could be too hot for decades until plant life regains a foothold and starts to consume the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Ms. Hatten: I'd like to be able to share your response with the students, so they could have some real knowledge of what we'd be facing if something like that happened.

Dr. Tholen: Some books have been written about it. Might make for a non-fiction reading assignment for your students. A few years ago, Gaddy Bergmann sent me a copy of his book, The Migration of the Kamishi, which is intended to become a trilogy. In this fiction, Apophis did hit and nearly wiped out humanity. But some did survive, basically sending mankind back to the stone age. Interesting book. The author's power of description of living things is what caught my eye. The plot isn't quite as strong, and I did encounter some technical errors (the waning crescent Moon is a before dawn sight, not an after dusk sight).

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