By Godswill Vesta UTONG
What’s the speed of the fastest aircraft ever recorded? The North American X-15, a manned hypersonic aircraft jointly operated by the US-AF and NASA (and discontinued—nay, retired in 1968) set the record for the highest speed ever attained by a manned, powered aircraft in 1967 (a record still unchallenged to this day.) 7,274 km/h. Almost 7 times the speed of sound! To ease understanding, it could travel from Port Harcourt to Kano (Nigeria) 7 times under one hour!
The fastest bullet in the world, the .220 Swift reaches a muzzle velocity of 4320 km/h. Not as impressive as the X-15, but imagine what such a metal at that velocity would do, on contact with the human body.
Developmental testing of its high-tech, long-range, hyper velocity, electromagnetic Rail Guns is being accelerated by the US Navy. Rail Guns use the principles of electromagnetism to propel projectiles along its rails, imparting high kinetic energy into the projectile, helping it achieve velocities north of 8,000 km/h. Over 7 times the speed of sound!
Such speeds, while dizzying to imagine, attest to the sheer ingenuity of humans, our will to push the boundaries of the possible and to test the limits of the achievable (the ISS orbits the earth with a velocity of 27,600 km/h.) These speeds are a testament to what humans can achieve when they work together. But all the highest recorded velocities attained by human inventions are dwarfed by the velocities of Near Earth Objects (NEOs)—specifically, Asteroids.
Asteroid Vesta, (picture 1. Credit: Google) the brightest asteroid and the second largest in the Asteroid Belt (second only to Ceres) has an average orbital speed of 19 km per second. That is almost 70,000 km/h! And that is not even the fastest. Smaller asteroids have been known to have average speeds of up to 90,000 km/h (25 km/s). Do you know what that means? That an asteroid that fast would have gone round the earth twice in the time it would take you to complete a psychometric test for a job application.What would collision of such large high-velocity NEO with the earth be like? Well, depending on its shape and size, the asteroid would start to accelerate on contact with the Earth’s gravity, covering the distance between the mesosphere and the Earth’s surface in about 5 seconds. Not enough time for friction, as it speeds through the atmosphere, to reduce its speed. There is a 70% chance that such asteroid would hit water. For asteroids wider than 100km, such an impact would produce a yield over 1,000 times more powerful than the atomic bombs dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Millions of tons of water (or dust, if it impacts on land) will be thrown into the atmosphere, changing the climate for decades to come. Shockwaves would create tsunamis that would submerge low-lying areas. Coastal areas would be indefinitely flooded. Plant and animal life would die out over time. Sounds like science fiction right? You would be surprised how many times such an event has occurred in the history of the Earth. The link below samples 11 craters on the surface of the Earth created by such impacts; http://www.touropia.com/impact-craters-on-earth/. The surface of the moon, viewed with a handy telescope would reveal its scars—scars received from (and as a painful reminder of) to its battles with NEOs. The Chicxulub Crater (picture 2. Artist impression. Credit: Detlev Van Ravenswaay/Science) is widely accepted as the impact Crater created when an asteroid or comet collided with the Earth, causing a worldwide climate change, believed to be the cause of the extinction of the Dinosaurs 66 million years ago.
We are largely helpless. All our technological advancement and we are still unable to deflect asteroids hurtling towards us. There is presently no technology available to destroy asteroids before they make contact with the atmosphere (forget Bruce Willis and his mining crew).
Thankfully, the chances of such an event occurring are very slim. We have now classified all astoleroids capable of extinction-type impacts and calculated their orbits. Our atmosphere still keeps being bombarded by meteors and meteorites (the Chelyabinsk Meteor, caught on camera exploding in the atmosphere in Russia circa 2013, for instance https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=JB2eoQfOGBA) but asteroids large enough to cause planet-wide extinction are kept at bay in the Asteroid Belt by the gravitation Force of Jupiter. So if, there ever is a god to direct our propitiatory prayers and thanksgiving odes to, it should be Jupiter. Perhaps that would occupy our minds and distract us from the fact that we are just sitting ducks floating around in space.
Plastics. Cheap, colorful and ubiquitous. Synthetic and malleable. Made from petrochemicals. Resistant to water and durable. The world’s first commercial plastic line appeared just over a hundred years ago. Today, plastics have found use in virtually every facet of our lives. Pharmaceutical. Fashion. Food production. Entertainment. Building. Military and Defense. Transportation. Preservation. Packaging. You name it. There’s a plastic for every occasion.
The availability of plastics in our wold today owes largely to the ease of production, versatility, it’s ability to be molded into any form and it’s durability. Chances are we will come in contact with more plastic substances over the course of our lives than we will come in contact with other humans.
Which poses a problem.
In 2013 alone, about 300 million tons of plastics were produced. By 2016, the figure had gone up by 20 million. China alone contributes about a quarter of the global plastics production figures. Production of plastics is slowly moving in the direction of Asia. The region alone, last year, accounted for almost half of the total production of plastics in the world.
And consumption? North America consumes more plastics yearly than any other region in the world. Over 45 million plastics consumed in a year. (picture 3. Credit: slideshare.net)
So where does it all go?
Knowing that most plastics are non-biodegradable and impervious to water, where do all these plastics we consume go? Well, efforts to curb plastic pollution through recycling and recovery have been inefficient over the years. Some 20 million tons of plastics still end up in the floor of our oceans. Recycling policies in developing nations are near non-existent. Our environments are littered with plastics; ‘pure-water’ bags, food wraps, soda cans tossed from moving vehicles. These plastics end up in land fills or our natural water bodies. It is estimated that over 5 trillion plastic wastes currently float in our oceans. These pollutants pose existential risks to marine life, by way of entanglement, ingestion or disruption of biological/chemical processes (pic. 4. Credit: Google)
In humans, there’s the threat of overexposure to BPA. Bisphenol A, a synthetic, organic compound employed in manufacturing many plastic materials. There is the risk of BPA seeping into our food (via heat from microwave ovens, breakdown of plastics over time and contact with our skins and food.) While the consensus is still out on the health risks from consumption of BPA, the US and EU have made monumental strides in cutting down the amount of BPA produced, with consumers opting for BPA-free plastics. But there’s a likely link between BPA levels in the body and sterility in men.
Recycling is inadequate. In the end, it is just downcycling. Conscientious efforts put into checking our plastic consumption and propensity to litter is a collective responsibility. Plastic pollution (see pic 5. Credit: greenhome.com). Avoid single-use plastics where possible. Opt for safer alternatives instead. Porcelain, glass, biodegradable plastics etc. Where there are no alternatives, ensure proper disposal. Awareness is key. We might not be able to reduce the amount of plastic waste already in our oceans, but we can very much reduce the amount that gets to our oceans.
How would planet Earth go down? How would it end?
Well, it is estimated that our neighborhood star, the Sun would’ve spent its fuel about 5 billion years from now, causing it to expand, as helium (previously formed by fusion of hydrogen atoms) is fused into heavier elements. The Earth would literally become hell. It’s atmosphere would evaporate and the energy plus solar winds from the sun would turn the Earth’s surface into a hot and barren waste land.
It is unlikely that the human race, as presently constituted, would survive long enough to witness such an event. We would’ve long since gone extinct. In any case, we can perfectly go to sleep today without having to worry about what would happen to our relatives 5 billion years thence, yeah? I mean, we can barely conceive what 5 billion years from now would mean to the human species, much less worry about it, yeah?
So let’s turn our attention—and worries—to what I like to call “the Other Billions”
With over 6,000 years of recorded history and 200,000 unrecorded, it wasn’t until 1804 that the world human population reached 1 billion. In about 125 years the population doubled, yet it took only 33 years to triple and become 3 billion in 1960. In just over 200 years, the world population had gone from one billion to over seven billion (2011 estimates). It is predicted that, going by present growth figures, the world population would be in excess of 11 billion by year 2100 (pic 6. Credit: ourworldindata.org)
Yearly, the world carbon emission exceeds 20 billion tons (20 million kilotons). In 2015 alone, over 36 billion tons of carbon dioxide was emitted due to our consumption of fossil fuels. The US and China alone are responsible for about 50% (43.4% as at 2015. See pic. 7&8. Credit: Google) of the world’s CO2 emissions. Very little has been achieved, by way of reduction of Greenhouse gases emission, since the Kyoto Protocol (and its amendment in Doha, 2012) was ratified and activated in 1997. Many EU countries, however, have embraced cleaner, greener energy generation sources.
OUR COLLECTIVE RESPONSIBILITY
And this is no joke. Exploding population figures and the gradual climatic change due to sustained human activities pose existential threats to all of us. Which is why, I think it is selfish to want to have seven children—to want to have as many “cute, cuddley babies as possible.” Because increase in the world population would mean increase in energy consumption, pushing energy companies to source for more fossil fuels. It would mean pushing several species of plants and animals to the edge of extinction as their habitats are taken over. It would mean destroying forests to cater to our housing and stationary needs, more plastic consumption per capita would translate to more production of single-use plastics. Corporate greed would see more TBTF companies spend more on energy consumption to stay in competition. And because our energy needs would grow with our population, global warming would see arctic ice shelves melt and the sea levels rise. Tsunamis and cyclones would appear more frequently.
And then there is also the threat of thermonuclear warfare.
We therefore owe it to ourselves—all of us—to be more serious in our advocacy for reduction in Carbon emissions, in our sensitization concerning family planning and health care choices. Our carbon footprints should be important to us. This might be seen as alarmism in some circles, but you owe it to the earth from whence you draw your sustenance to be a responsible citizen. To take matters that affect the Earth (continuous drilling for fossil fuels, oil spillages, deforestation, fracking), that affect your neighbor (climate change, global warming) very seriously.
Because, until we’re able to terraform other planets, this is the only home we have. And while it is unlikely that an asteroid would end our existence or that we would witness the sun go supernova, we most likely will be the ones to end our existence.
Still the Earth would trudge on… Indifferent to our non-existence.