by Julie Nováková
Imagine a vast icy cold landscape of patchwork black-and-white ice bathed in starlight. Imagine stepping onto it a hundred years after the previous crewed mission had landed there. How does that make you feel?
Congratulations. You’re on Saturn’s moon Iapetus amidst the long Iapetan night, and you’ve reached another of humanity’s stepping stones in regaining its past achievements before Earth’s metaphorical long night. That long night is what I’ve come here to talk about. Beware: it’s not going to be a happy, uplifting read.
In “The Long Iapetan Night” [in our current issue, on sale now!] people are starting to explore the solar system once again a century after a disaster that plunged humanity into chaos—or, rather, two such disasters separated by less than a year.
There are a number of events that could have such an effect. In the story, it was a large volcanic eruption that erased Naples from the map and plunged Earth into a volcanic winter, followed by a powerful solar storm hitting the planet and frying not only satellites, but also a lot of ground-based infrastructure. We could think of other non-anthropogenic rare events with immediate global consequences, most importantly an asteroid strike. These events have some traits in common: They are rare (and the larger-scale they are, the rarer they get), and they are nigh impossible to reliably predict sufficiently in advance. We have their distribution mapped reasonably well, but that still doesn’t tell us whether the next megavolcano, severe solar storm with a coronal mass ejection hitting the Earth, or asteroid strike will occur next year, in ten years’ time, in the next century, or in a thousand years; only the approximate likelihood that it happens sometime in a given period of time. The probability of two of such events coinciding is extremely low—but even one would suffice to do major global damage.
Sometimes these events are dubbed “black swans,” referring to something unexpected, near-unpredictable, and highly improbable. We should differentiate these from “gray rhinos,” events that can have just as massive impacts, but are slower moving, and the threat is more obvious (not that we can predict exactly when and how they happen, but looking at the statistics, we can say that the danger is more or less imminent). The current COVID-19 pandemic is such an event. Anthropogenic climate change is another.
Rare events such as volcanic eruptions, asteroid strikes, or solar flares more or less follow a power law distribution where the stronger they are, the less frequently they occur. Small meteoroids that burn up in the atmosphere or fall down as tiny chunks of stone and metal hit our planet many times a day. An asteroid of a one-km diameter, approximately the smallest that could theoretically jumpstart a global disaster, hits the Earth on average every half a million years. An asteroid strike of the rate that contributed to the extinction of dinosaurs (well, apart from birds) occurs, on average, about every twenty million years. The last one of such force occurred sixty-six million years ago—yeah, the dinosaur extinction—but that doesn’t mean we’re “due” for one. The next one could strike next year just as well as in a hundred million years.
If we are to survive and thrive as a species, as a biosphere, we need to take global action. The healthier and more stable the population and the whole environment are, the more likely we are to face any coming disaster of manageable proportions, well, managed. We need to care about infrastructure in the developed as well as developing countries—in terms of supply chains, industry, energy, information, health care, education . . .
The same, as far as we know, applies to volcanic events (although it’s necessarily simplifying—in principle, rare processes leading to clustering of eruptions could be imagined). As Papale (2018) remarks: “Exponential distributions are memoryless, exactly meaning that the probability of observing a next event in a given time window is always the same, irrespective of the time passed from the last observed event. Therefore . . . there is no ‘overdue’ event: the probability of a next cataclysmic or colossal eruption somewhere on the Earth is always the same, no matter how long ago—one day or one million years—we observed the last one.”
Predicting these events is hard. Most of the near-Earth asteroid population has been mapped, but still—asteroids are not so easy to spot, and if they don’t conveniently obscure some star while we’re looking at it, radiate a lot of heat as opposed to background, or reflect lots of sunlight, the chances are we would only notice one on a collision course with Earth too late to do anything about it—even if we were able to deflect an asteroid, which we at the moment aren’t. Volcanoes are notoriously difficult to predict—or, rather, we can usually tell if a volcano is about to erupt in the foreseeable future, but the size of the eruption is hard to ascertain in advance. Robust connections between the eruption size and pre-eruption data have not been found yet, although that may improve in the future. And as for solar flares, it’s possible to predict a coronal mass ejection hitting the Earth, but the warning period would be low indeed. If a flare-induced geomagnetic storm occurs on Earth, its effect will depend greatly on its size and other factors, such as the bedrock beneath grid infrastructure (resistive rocks may make the hazard worse). It could damage the electrical grid in just a small region, or it could leave us without satellite navigation and communications, and more or less without electricity—thus also without information. . . .
How can we prepare for these events? Infrastructure redundancy is one thing. It means not depending on a single source of food, energy, anything. The more you decentralize and the more independent systems you build, the more likely you persist with less damage. For instance, a geomagnetic storm could fry satellites and a substantial part of ground-based infrastructure, while it could leave cables laid on the bottom of the sea intact. It’s nice to have satellites as well as undersea cables in place. But that’s a trivial example. Another that doesn’t only apply to rare global disasters is having enough (well-equipped, well-staffed) hospitals distributed across the landscape, so that as few regions as possible are left with low accessibility of medical care. Having well-kept stores of basic medicine, food reserves or other essentials—and having clear, ideally local-based (not depending on offices hundreds of miles away) protocols of what to do with them if needed—would also be prudent. We don’t directly see the Earth in “The Long Iapetan Night,” but I like to imagine that at least some of these factors contributed to humankind venturing back into space only a century after the two disasters.
Yet given how 2020 has fared so far, I’m afraid that “The Long Iapetan Night” is hilariously, hilariously optimistic. (Ah, well. I suppose it had to be. Even Peter Watts is an optimist, and I probably don’t know any actual pessimists.) We’d known that a pandemic was coming. We’d had no idea about its type, its origin, or the time it would hit, but some pandemic sooner or later was  inevitable. It was reasonable for any government to have clear contingency plans with up-to-date ties to the market for surgical masks, ventilators and other equipment; to have stores of essential equipment and medicine; to be at least vaguely prepared for the eventuality of mass quarantine in terms of infrastructure, money, and education; to have regularly updated plans on how to effectively distribute key information . . .
Instead, in more places than not, we’ve got disasters. I was tempted to say shitshows, and speaking of some governments, I would not hesitate to use the term, but it would be more than disrespectful to the countless victims of the pandemic worldwide to apply it generally. Although, I guess I’m entitled to call it a shitshow if it’s my country’s government. It reacted reasonably well in spring . . . and then sat on its hands in summer, thinking that if people go about without masks, go to holidays, and generally have fun, everything will be okay. Guess what: Once people returned to their workplaces and to schools, the number of cases spiked rapidly and is still growing exponentially. We might be facing ICU overload in a few weeks’ time, and still, no measures matching those in spring have been taken. Experts predict that even if the measures are taken now, we’ll likely face insufficient medical care for patients with serious symptoms, because we can only observe the effect of safety measures (or lack thereof) with a delay of more than a week.
Things could have been done in summer—the capacity for testing may have been increased. More people for contact tracing may have been hired and trained. More supplies of masks and ventilators could have been secured. More resources could have been diverted towards distance-working and learning. Instead, we’ve got campaigns about holiday-going.
Reading this, you might perhaps be tempted to become a “prepper,” to build a bunker underneath your house, stash lots of conserved food, medicine and other long-lasting essential items, and imagine you’d be okay.
That is not the way. If we are to survive and thrive as a species, as a biosphere, we need to take global action. The healthier and more stable the population and the whole environment are, the more likely we are to face any coming disaster of manageable proportions, well, managed. We need to care about infrastructure in the developed as well as developing countries—in terms of supply chains, industry, energy, information, health care, education . . . Investments in health care and education seem especially prudent, since they can leave the population more productive, less costly in the long term (guess what—it’s cheaper to have good-quality free prevention than spend on treating ailments or have sick people suffer while treatments exist), and more equipped to deal with catastrophic events. Lower, more manageable and less environment-demanding population growth closely follows the quality of healthcare and education (although one may argue that a single-child first-world family takes a much, much higher toll on the environment than a seven-child third-world family—which is a reason to change that cost, too). Measures such as the universal basic income are gaining more traction amidst the current pandemic, and multiple studies (albeit localized, rather short-term) suggest that it’s an economically (and literally) healthy step.
All of this has been and continues to be explored in SF. Science fiction can both warn and inspire. It can scare the hell out of us, and then get us to act. There is an ongoing debate about whether dystopias or hopepunk are more or less useful in this respect, but delving into that would be material for a whole new article. As someone who doesn’t too much like “taking sides” without the support of numbers, I’ll just say that it remains an interesting question to explore.
To look on the brighter side, it’s not like nothing is being done. Countless teams of scientists are collecting and studying data that may eventually help us predict large-scale disasters and mitigate their impacts. ESA is looking into more closely studying extreme space weather, and has an impressive fleet of satellites observing the Earth and ultimately helping mitigate the effects of smaller-scale events such as draughts, fires, storms and more. NASA, ESA and other agencies are trying to increase the observation and tracking of near-Earth objects. Things are moving . . . and it’s largely up to cosmic accident whether it’s good enough.
In any case, don’t be mistaken. The next great disaster is coming. It may be coming for us, our grandchildren, or many, many generations later, but it will happen. Hopefully, we’ll have mapped near-Earth objects, understood solar activity, or monitored geodynamics much better than now by then, but even that is no excuse for not being prepared in the most basic of ways.
The question is not if. It’s when.