Issue 60 • Week of March 12, 2023

Fear of lightning is the third most prevalent phobia in America, even though the odds of dying from a thunderbolt are 1 in 281,263. Golfers are not the only targets in an electric storm. There are other less obvious activities that should be avoided as well.

We actually have a higher chance of being killed by an asteroid or comet (1 in 250,000) instead. These can range from one of the 17 small meteors crashing into the planet every day to an extinction level event like the impact which caused the demise of all non-avian dinosaurs. Something in the middle would still wreak havoc. For instance, the resulting dust kicked up into the skies from a large enough crater could cause widespread famine during a year without summer – last experienced in 1816 due to a super-colossal volcanic eruption.

While the risk of such a cosmic occurrence is extremely low, people win the lottery playing worse odds. We should not take our planetary safety for granted given the eventuality of unimaginable global catastrophe. The question is not if it will happen, but if it will happen to Earth within our lifetimes (as Jupiter was the target of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 in 1994) or in the distant future beyond our present concern.

Scientists now believe giant meteor strikes are more likely than previously thought and we are more at risk now than we were just four years ago. The US sadly decommissioned one of the world's best asteroid search systems at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico in 2020 after extensive damage from Hurricane Maria and multiple earthquakes. Even a petition with 100,000 signatures failed to convince the National Science Foundation to rebuild it.

We can protect ourselves from lightning, but we can't prevent a volcanic eruption. So, the question for Near Miss Day on March 23 and Global Astronomy Month in April is:

Can we really avert a cataclysmic event from the cosmos?

Please sign up or sign in to continue

Already subscribed? Sign in