Here are six cosmic catastrophes that would wipe out life on earth

After Donald Trump, a supernova like this might come as light relief. Image: Getty.

If you ask yourself what the biggest threat to human existence is you’d probably think of nuclear war, global warming or a large-scale pandemic disease. But assuming we can overcome such challenges, are we really safe?

Living on our blue little planet seems safe until you are aware of what lurks in space. The following cosmic disasters are just a few ways humanity could be severely endangered or even wiped out. Happy reading!

1. High energy solar flare

Our sun is not as peaceful a star as one might initially think. It creates strong magnetic fields that generate impressive sun spots, sometimes many times larger than Earth. It also ejects a stream of particles and radiation – the solar wind. If kept in check by Earth’s magnetic field, this wind can cause beautiful northern and southern lights. But when it becomes stronger, it can also influence radio communication or cause power outages.

The most powerful magnetic solar storm documented hit Earth in 1859. The incident, called the Carrington Event, caused huge interference with rather small scale electronic equipment. Such events must have happened several times in the past, too, with humans surviving.

But only in recent years have we become entirely dependent on electronic equipment. The truth is we would suffer greatly if we underestimate the dangers of a possible Carrington or even more powerful event. Even though this would not wipe out humanity instantly, it would represent an immense challenge. There would be no electricity, heating, air conditioning, GPS or internet – food and medicines would go bad.

2. Asteroid impact

We are now well aware of the dangers asteroids could pose to humanity – they are, after all, thought to have contributed to the extinction of the dinosaurs. Recent research has made us aware of the large host of space rocks in our solar system that could pose danger.

Dangerous impact. Image: Don Davis/NASA.

We are at the starting point of envisaging and developing systems for protecting us against some of the smaller asteroids that could strike us. But against the bigger and rarer ones we are quite helpless. While they would not always destroy Earth or even make it uninhabitable, they could wipe out humanity by causing enormous tsunamis, fires and other natural disasters.

3. Expanding sun

Where the previous cosmic dangers occur at the roll of a dice with a given probability, we know for certain that our sun will end its life in 7.7bn years. At this point, it will throw off its outer atmosphere to form a planetary nebula, ending up as a stellar remnant know as a “white dwarf”.

But humanity will not experience these final stages. As the sun becomes older, it will become cooler and larger. By the time it becomes a stellar giant it will be big enough to engulf both Mercury and Venus. Earth might seem safe at this point, but the sun will also create an extremely strong solar wind that will slow down the Earth. As a result, in about 7.6 billion years, our planet will spiral into the outer layers of the hugely expanded dying star and melt away forever.

4. Local gamma ray burst

Extremely powerful outbursts of energy called gamma ray bursts can be caused by binary star systems (two stars orbiting a common centre) and supernovas (exploding stars). These energy bursts are extremely powerful because they focus their energy into a narrow beam lasting no longer than seconds or minutes. The resulting radiation from one could damage and destroy our ozone layer, leaving life vulnerable to the sun’s harsh UV radiation.

Astronomers have discovered a star system – WR 104 – that could host such an event. WR 104 is about 5,200-7,500 light years away, which is not far enough to be safe. And we can only guess when the burst will happen. Luckily, there is the possibility that the beam could miss us entirely when it does.

5. Nearby supernovas

Supernova explosions, which take place when a star has reached the end of its life, occur on average once or twice every 100 years in our Milky Way. They are more likely to occur closer to the dense centre of the Milky Way and we are about two-thirds of the way from the middle – not too bad.

SN 1994D (bright spot on the lower left), a type Ia supernova in the NGC 4526 galaxy. Image: NASA/ESA/creative commons.

So can we expect a nearby supernova anytime soon? The star Betelgeuse – a red super giant nearing the end of its life – in the constellation of Orion is just 460-650 light years away. It could become a supernova now or in the next million years. Luckily, astronomers have estimated that a supernova would need to be within at least 50 light years of us for its radiation to damage our ozone layer. So it seems this particular star shouldn’t be too much of a concern.

6. Moving stars

Meanwhile, a wandering star on its path through the Milky Way might come so close to our sun that it would interact with the rocky “Oort cloud” at the edge of the solar system, which is the source of our comets. This might lead to an increased chance of a huge comet hurtling to Earth. Another roll of the dice.

The sun itself follows a path through the Milky Way that takes us through more or less dense patches of interstellar gas. Currently we are within a less dense bubble created by a supernova. The sun’s wind and solar magnetic field help create a bubble-like region surrounding our solar system – the heliosphere – which shields us from interacting with the interstellar medium. When we leave this region in 20,000 to 50,000 years (depending on current observations and models), our heliosphere could be less effective, exposing Earth. We would possibly encounter increased climate change making life more challenging for humanity – if not impossible.


And life goes on…

The end of humanity on Earth is a given. But this is not something to make us crawl under a table. It is something that we cannot change, similar to our lives having a definite start and end. This is what defines us and makes us realise that the only thing we can do is make the most of our time on Earth. Especially when we know that Earth needs a careful balance to sustain humanity.

All the above scenarios harbour possible destruction, but in every instance they also offer beauty and wonder. In many cases, they produce what allowed us to be created. So rather than looking into the night sky and wondering what will kill us next, we should marvel at the depth of space, the wonders therein and the sublime nature of the universe. Be inspired by space. It offers future and meaning.The Conversation

Daniel Brown is a lecturer in astronomy at Nottingham Trent University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.


So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?


And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.