As we write these words, social media feeds are buzzing with two unrelated subjects: the tragedy of Tropical Storm Harvey and the fading thrill of HBO’s Game of Thrones season finale.
These are very different things. One is a heartbreaking natural disaster, maybe the worst Texas has ever faced. The other is a work of fiction. But the two events sound an eerie common note: They are both stories about the perils of disbelief.
“Climate change means that when we do have an event like Harvey, the rainfall amounts are likely to be higher than they would have been otherwise,” Clare Nullis, spokesperson for the World Meteorological Organization, said during a briefing to the United Nations, as reported by U.S. News and World Report. Flooding is the central component of the present disaster; more rain means more misery.
So some of Harvey’s destructive power comes from climate change caused by human activity. For most of Game of Thrones, the reigning Queen of Westeros steadfastly denies the existence of an approaching army of undead. The sitting President of the United States has a long public history of skepticism about “global warming.”
The effects of climate change are the White Walkers of our world.
Like the rulers of Westeros, our leaders have spent generations arguing over whether the threat is real instead of preparing for it. Now the Wall has come down; Winter is here. We either band together to face the common enemy or we bicker while our coasts are overrun.
But for all our failures to grapple with human-induced climate change, at least that discussion is on the table. Reality is also full of apocalyptic threats that you’ve probably never even heard of.
Here are a few new things to scare you. May they take your mind off the very real and present devastation and loss of life on the Gulf Coast—after you donate generously to recovery efforts.
The New Madrid Fault
In 1990, Missouri schoolchildren studied a new subject: earthquake preparedness. A biophysicist by training, Dr. Iben Browning had predicted that a gigantic earthquake would shake the state to pieces on Dec. 3, “plus or minus 48 hours,” according to Browning’s obituary in the New York Times. Browning placed the chances of a devastating quake at 50 percent—the flip of a coin.
Communities panicked. As December rolled around, schools closed. Dec. 3 came and went. No earthquake. Browning’s reputation took a blow and he passed away the following year.
But he was not wrong about the dangers of the New Madrid Fault line. In December of 1811, this ancient tear in the bones of the Earth shifted—then shifted, then shifted again. Midwesterners suffered three to five major earthquakes before Feb. 7, 1812, plus thousands of smaller earthquakes in the subsequent months, according to the Missouri Geological Survey.
The Mississippi River ran backward for a few hours during those tumultuous months.
James Wilkinson, director of the Central U.S. Earthquake Consortium, told the Atlantic’s Peter Brannen that Midwesterners are “lucky” a major earthquake hasn’t occurred lately.
But there’s no reason to flee the Midwest yet. The Missouri Geological Survey places the risk of an 1811-12-style earthquake, which would measure 8.5-9 on the Richter scale, at just 7-10 percent.
On second thought, that’s a little higher than we’re comfortable with.
Invasive Species, Including An Ant That Can Scar You
Kudzu has got nothing on the Red Imported Fire Ant (RIFA). Solenopsis invicta is a fair name for a species with a sting that causes burning welts.
“The stinging behavior of Red Imported Fire Ant can be hazardous to field workers as the sting is noxious and produces a pustule on the skin that can scar if infected,” write Les Greenberg and John Klotz of the Center for Invasive Species Research at the University of California, Riverside. “Newborn livestock and poultry are vulnerable to attack by ants.”
Texas-based environmental designer Pablo Solomon, who does much of his work outside, is familiar with the perils of RIFA:
Not exactly world-ending stuff here, but RIFA are on the move, and they could be heading toward a neighborhood near you. When you feel their sting, you will swear the apocalypse is already here.
More importantly, the introduction of invasive plants and animals can be ruinous for existing ecosystems. According to the National Wildlife Federation, invasive organisms are behind more than 40 percent of population threats bad enough to label a species Threatened or Endangered.
Invasive species can deplete our food supplies and ecosystems. If that’s not the makings of the apocalypse, we don’t know what is.
Asteroids On a Collision Course
In 2013, a 65-foot-wide rock from space exploded over the Russian city of Chelyabinsk. Researchers discovered that the explosion contained the force of about 500 kilotons of TNT, 33.3 times more energy than that unleashed by Little Boy, the atomic device the Americans dropped on Hiroshima, Japan at the end of World War II.
Luckily, the Chelyabinsk meteor was 28 miles above the earth when it blew up. Little Boy wasn’t even half a mile up when it went off. Still, the blast wave from the meteor shattered windows across 3,600 blocks. It knocked people over. The brightness of the streaking fireball burned skin and retinas as spellbound viewers watched the meteor explode.
So, that was scary. Here’s something even scarier: A forthcoming study in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics describes a terrifying stream of asteroids that the Earth zips past every few years. One of those asteroids is between 650 and 980 feet in diameter, reports Newsweek. So is another one.
These massive asteroids are part of a meteor belt called Taurids, which orbits the sun just like our planet. Every few years, the two entities encounter each other in space and sail side by side for about three weeks.
“During this period, the probability of a collision with a larger object (of about dozens of meters in diameter) is markedly higher,” reports Phys.org, quoting a press release from the Czech Academy of Sciences whose scientists worked on the soon-to-be-published study.
How much higher? We’ll have to look elsewhere for that answer. National Geographic reports that a Tulane University professor of earth sciences, Stephen A. Nelson, has worked out the numbers. The risk of losing your life from a huge asteroid strike is only about 1 in 75,000, Nelson figures (as opposed to the 1 in 250 odds we lose our lives in a house fire). The statistic we’d prefer is 0.
The Faultline That’s More Worrisome Than San Andreas or New Madrid
Michio Kaku is a physics professor at the City University of New York. In July 2015, Kaku appeared on an episode of CBS This Morning with a chilling message: “It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when,” he said.
Kaku was referring to an earthquake/tsunami one-two punch that, Kaku said, has 1-in-10 chance of destroying the Pacific Northwest within the next 50 years.
“Forget all the Hollywood hype about the San Andreas fault,” Kaku said. “We’re talking about an earthquake, a 9.0, similar to what devastated northern Japan [in 2011].”
The New Yorker’s Kathryn Schulz wrote about the potential earthquake in 2015. She quotes Kenneth Murphy, then-director of FEMA’s Region X, which covers Alaska, Idaho, Washington, and Oregon.
“Our operating assumption is that everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast,” Murphy told Schulz.
A faultline called the Cascadia Subduction Zone stretches from around Capetown, California, through Oregon and Washington, all the way into Canada’s Vancouver Island. And this fault is under pressure.
Beneath these places where people live, a 90,000-square-mile oceanic plate is trying to slip beneath the North American tectonic plate, which supports the entire continent. But the two plates are stuck, Schulz explains.
One day, something will have to give. When that happens, it could cause a 9.0-magnitude quake and an ensuing 500-mph wall of water, Kaku told CBS. His advice? Get ready.
Preparing for a World of Natural Disasters
According to the latest National Climate Assessment, the Earth’s changing climate has made weather more extreme year-round. The seas have risen by 8 inches since 1880, says the report. The sea-level rise fuels dangerous storms. Simultaneously, the Western United States has had a decade of its driest conditions in 800 years, contributing to drought and wildfires. Hurricanes have increased in “intensity, frequency, and duration” in the North Atlantic since the 1980s.
And, with a nod to our TV touchpoint, Game of Thrones, winter storms are more frequent and intense. All of these changes are associated with a warming planet.
According to NASA, 97 percent of “climate scientists agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities, and most of the leading scientific organizations worldwide have issued public statements endorsing this position.”
That begs a question that would be familiar to poor Jon Snow from Game of Thrones. Do we really have to see existential threats to believe they exist? If so, all we have to do is open our eyes. The Wall is already down.