Surviving all possible planetary catastrophes

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Pablo Edronkin

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In the long run we will all be death, right? Maybe not, but what should humankind do in order to survive in the millennia to come? This question is not just something that has religion as its reference point, but actually science.

Human beings have been for quite some time on Earth; we have been around for a little more than a million years, which is a lot, especially if you consider candles on birthday cakes, but if we measure our stay against other things, it really isn't so much: dinosaurs ruled the planet for almost two hundred million years, then they don't even measure up to life's evolution on our planet, which is about twenty times older. We can't compare with the age of the solar system or the universe, so we really amount for very little in the general order of things: Carl Sagan once made a striking comparison, saying that if we could squeeze the history of the universe into one of our years, humankind would have appeared just on the final moments before the end of the last day. So, while our telescopes might seem big as we look out in the cosmos, if we took the inverse perspective, we would only see a very little planet.

From that perspective and once you consider all the factors involved in the very long evolution of life, it is almost a miracle that we still exist. Just consider this: It is estimated that about once every hundred million years, a meteor capable of annihilating the majority of all life forms on the planet strikes its surface, threatening even its structural integrity in geophysical terms. So, with life hanging here for almost 4.000 million years, maths say that we could have been wiped out 400 times, over and over.

If you live in a neighbourhood with a little bit of insecurity, thieves going around, and we have been shot, stabbed and attacked around four hundred times in our life, the thing to do would really be to do something about the problem. Then, since meteors could plausibly have the same effect on our lives - and cool, nifty new cars - than volleys of bullets, the right thing to do about those obnoxious pieces of rock would be to protect ourselves. And if you now live in fear, consider this too: There are threats that we are merely starting to understand now, such as solar flares, supernovae and black holes. None of these are in our immediate space-temporal vicinity, for now, but considering the lapses of time that we are talking about in our new perspective, it is highly probable that humankind will sooner or later confront such problems.

Nikolai Kardashev, a Russian astronomer, created a few decades ago a model to understand the progress of any civilisation in the cosmos based on the use that it makes of its energy. What we know today as the Kardashev scale establishes several criteria to define how available energy is used and thus, what could each civilisation, at each of its own evolutionary stages could eventually control. For example, according to that scale, a type I civilisation would control all the energy available in its own home planet. Thus, events such as typhoons and quakes could be ameliorated or even stalled completely. Such civilisation would be capable of surviving against all planetary catastrophes. According to Sagan, we are now approaching the definition of a type I civilisation: It is expected that we will control all the energy available on Earth in no more than two hundred years. We already have some degree of control over some forms of energy and we can, at least, forecast some catastrophic events such as extreme weather, floods and so on. We still can't accurately predict things like earthquakes, much less control them, but hopefully we will get there too. So, according to this and Sagan's opinion, we would be around a 0,80 in the Kardashev scale.

This means that a type I civilisation would be safe in principle, from all sorts of planetary catastrophes. In order to achieve further levels of survivability, such as leaving a solar system suffering from an incoming black hole or with a failing star, or even repairing their own sun, a civilisation would have to evolve further and the Kardashev scale predicts that too: things like interstellar travel would have to be fairly common among them and we are still a little bit further from there; this does not mean that we should do nothing about it because even the longest trek begins with a single step, and while this might seem a bit like science fiction, we should remember that just a little more than a century ago flying through the atmosphere seemed as unlikely as travelling to Proxima Centauri these days, yet humankind did it. Ultimately, our survival depends on having enough imagination.


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