Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Will the Tsunami Disaster Push Asteroid Mitigation Closer to a Resolution?


Let's frigging hope so. Today at lunch I read the Wall Street Journal and they had two editorials which discuss The Probability of Catastrophe......And the Economics of Disaster Management.

The first article was the one that for obvious reasons jumped out at me, especially because now you have a respected newspaper editorial discussing the Tunguska Impact and the probabilities of another asteroid impact on the earth, instead of just the occasional freaky blogger (nope, no denial around these parts folks), a current astronomer (A Voyage to Arcturus), or former astronauts from places such as the B612 Foundation.

The author of the editorial is one Richard A. Posner, a judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, and a senior lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School. Not an astronaut, not a professor of Astronomy (that I'm aware of), just someone with an intelligent head on his shoulders who happens to agree with the rest of us that even though the odds of being killed by an asteroid are slim, it doesn't mean we're automatically safe. And as he argues in detail -the fact that a catastrophe is very unlikely to occur is not a rational justification for ignoring the risk of its occurrence.

Some excerpts from the editorial-

"The Indian Ocean tsunami illustrates a type of disaster to which policy makers pay too little attention -- a disaster that has a very low or unknown probability of occurring, but that if it does occur creates enormous losses. Great as the death toll, physical and emotional suffering of survivors, and property damage caused by the recent tsunami are, even greater losses could be inflicted by other disasters of low (but not negligible) or unknown probability.

The asteroid that exploded above Siberia in 1908 with the force of a hydrogen bomb might have killed millions of people had it exploded above a major city. Yet that asteroid was only about 200 feet in diameter, and a much larger one (among the thousands of dangerously large asteroids in orbits that intersect the earth's orbit) could strike the earth and cause the total extinction of the human race through a combination of shock waves, fire, tsunamis, and blockage of sunlight, wherever it struck."

Yeah, I've never heard THAT mentioned before. And neither have any of my friends, about, oh, 8 million times.

Mr. Posner continues-

"An even more dramatic example (of political support for incurring the costs of taking precautionary measures against low-probability disasters-ed.) concerns the asteroid menace, which is analytically similar to the menace of tsunamis. NASA, with an annual budget of more than $10 billion, spends only $4 million a year on mapping dangerously close large asteroids, and at that rate may not complete the task for another decade, even though such mapping is the key to an asteroid defense because it may give us years of warning. Deflecting an asteroid from its orbit when it is still millions of miles from the earth is a feasible undertaking. In both cases, slight risks of terrible disasters are largely ignored essentially for political reasons.

In part because tsunamis are one of the risks of an asteroid collision, the Indian Ocean disaster has stimulated new interest in asteroid defense. This is welcome. The fact that a disaster of a particular type has not occurred recently or even within human memory (or even ever) is a bad reason to ignore it. The risk may be slight, but if the consequences, should it materialize, are great enough, the expected cost of disaster may be sufficient to warrant defensive measures. "

Gary S. Becker, the 1992 Nobel laureate in economics, professor of economics at the University of Chicago and senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, pens the follow up to Mr Posners article with the following- . . . And the Economics of Disaster Management- also well worth the read.

Finally, I read some serious discussion of asteroid impacts, and in the Journal no less.

Perhaps one of the positive results from the Tsunami disaster will be a resurgence in the research behind preventing and surviving major natural-or man made- disasters. Because again- NASA, with an annual budget of more than $10 billion, spends only $4 million a year on mapping dangerously close large asteroids. THIS IS NOT ENOUGH.

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