The Contemporary Hazard of Cometary Impacts

  • D. Morrison

Abstract

Cosmic impacts pose a continuing hazard of loss of human life and property. Significant contemporary risk is associated with projectiles in the energy range from about 10 megatons of TNT up to the size of the K/T impactor. The lower threshold for damage is defined by the atmosphere of the Earth, which effectively shields us from smaller projectiles. Up to energies of about a gigaton of TNT, the effects are local or regional for impacts on the land, or coastal for ocean impacts, which can generate large tsunamis. A greater risk is associated with still larger impacts, which are capable of causing global ecological catastrophe, possibly leading to mass mortality from starvation and epidemics. If such an impact took place anywhere on Earth during our lifetimes, we would each be in danger, independent of where the projectile struck. Statistical estimates indicate that each human on this planet runs a risk of roughly 1 in 20,000 of dying from this cause. Prudence suggests that we should be concerned about such impacts and seek ways of avoiding them or mitigating their consequences. The primary objective of any program to deal with this hazard is to determine whether or not such a near-term impact is likely. The best approach for the asteroidal component is a comprehensive telescopic survey, which can discover all Earth-crossing asteroids larger than 1 km in diameter and provide decades of warning in which to plan ways to deflect or destroy a threatening object. Long-period comets, however, pose a much greater challenge, since they cannot be discovered long in advance of a possible impact, their orbits are harder to predict, and they are significantly more difficult to deflect or destroy.

Keywords

Impact Hazard Lunar Crater Catastrophic Impact Global Catastrophe Threatening Object 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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© Springer Science+Business Media New York 1997

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  • D. Morrison

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