This world … After these words, a two-minute movie with slow-motion explosions, fireballs and burning people should begin. Why not? Whether there are dangers from space, the riot of natural forces or the results of human arrogance, emotions will be provided – at least for those who are not used to them.
But real disasters are not single events caused by simple, solvable problems, and they do not end with the last payment of a loan. And it’s not about scale. The line that separates the incident from the disaster is determined by the willingness of society and the ability to cope with the consequences. Vaccines, rapid response groups and early warning systems can shift this line towards recovery, while poverty, corruption and ignorance move it towards disaster.
Whether good or bad, technology and unprecedented control over life and death are likely to allow future disasters to unfold along lines unique to world history. Before you the possible disasters of the future, which few people will be left indifferent.
If genetic manipulation goes wrong
Let’s delve into the destruction with the help of one of the most vivid examples of gin in a bottle from the world of technology: genetic manipulation.
For a long time, ethics experts and science fiction writers are afraid that our genetic ambitions will outstrip our security guarantees. We could accept the rudeness and cost of modern technology and hope that reliability and adaptability of life will take care of everything else. But new methods, such as CRISPR-Cas9, have transformed genetic manipulation into an accurate and very dangerous tool. What once took years and cost a little luck, now takes weeks and several thousand dollars.
On the positive side, this technology can allow us to change parts of the genome to resist the fungus or, for example, to give the mosquito genetic protection against malaria. But where old methods of genetic modification lead to population degeneration, new methods can allow the transfer of genes through generations. Simply put, we can destroy the whole view of everything because of one mistake.
In April 2015, a group of Chinese scientists described the process of using CRISPR-Cas9 when editing non-viable human embryos. Scientists called for the freezing of experiments with genes at such an early stage and many journals refuse to publish such studies for ethical reasons. But bioethical standards tend to lag behind technology and, who knows, what could the less ethical side do?
The Global Pandemic
When it comes to biological factors that affect the whole species, people often can not do anything. The outbreak of the epidemic of the Ebola virus in West Africa in April 2014 aroused fears about how far and quickly a dangerous disease can spread and how badly prepared we can be to it. And we can, because a few days after the World Health Organization proclaimed this region free from Ebola in 2016, there was another case.
History has shown that a pandemic at all times could be useful, at least for those who survived it. In addition to the traumatic emotional impact, the pandemic creates certain prospects for poor countries and helps restore the ecology, unless it kills too many people. Among other things, the pandemic changes the principles of the functioning of society, helps to organize the infrastructure and forces people to spend their non-working hours caring for their relatives.
A disease that kills 80-90% of all people on Earth can induce this balance to a hopeless social and technological catastrophe. The more we travel, change the picture outside the window and closely communicate with animals of different species, the more we increase our risks.
How likely is one of these events? Hard to tell. Over the past few centuries, the pandemic has occurred every 10-50 years, the most recent of which was the global pandemic of H1N1 influenza in 2009 and 2010. It follows that during your lifetime another pandemic may well occur.
Coronal mass ejection
Coronal mass ejections (CME), or plasma and magnetic field outbursts from the sun’s corona, have much in common with pandemics. They follow the cycle, although much more regular (conditions are formed every 11 years or so). They also cause always different, but potentially destructive, damage, and their scale of destruction depends, in part, on how much people are tied up in technology.
In 1859, amateur astronomer Richard Carrington observed a solar flare that heralded a geomagnetic storm. The release of the magnetized plasma that hit the Earth created a sufficiently strong electric charge to power the telegraph transmissions for several days. Since then, astronomers have observed such events of Carrington (powerful solar storms) and associated CME with growing anxiety.
While we were lucky. The alignment of the magnetic field softened the impact of a powerful release in October 2003. Nevertheless, he led to losses of hundreds of millions of dollars, violating flights, the work of satellites and power networks. In July 2012, another blowout bypassed us.
In the worst case, such a release can lead to interruptions in the supply of electricity and the loss of GPS satellites. This means that there will be no trade, no cooling, fuel or water supply – and these are trillions of dollars of losses and irreplaceable losses. Some experts are happy to predict that interruptions in work will last only a few weeks. But a quick recovery will not be possible if the coronal mass ejection melts all the transformers. In this case, the risks of social disruption and mass famine will be very real.
Speaking of mass hunger, do you know that there is a theoretical limit to how many people can support the planet? Basically, it is due to the available solar radiation, but there are other limitations that we could reach long before it.
In the 18th century, economist Thomas Malthus was very worried that the population was growing much faster than food. Today, many scientists brush aside its warning, but at the beginning of the 20th century, a food crisis emerged due to a shortage of nitrates and ammonia. German chemists Fritz Haber and Karsh Bosch won us a little time, inventing the process of nitrogen fixation, which extracts gas from the air and turns it into fertilizer.
Today there is a shortage of another nutrient – phosphorus. Our bodies need phosphorus to redistribute energy and build cells and DNA. But our demand is likely to exceed supply in 30-40 years. And the move towards biofuel options only deepens the crisis.
At present, a large amount of phosphorus is lost in the waste of people and animals. Most of what remains is in the trash can or washed into drains. Replenishment of these sources and the search for new ones could benefit us a little time, but everything has its limit – even the generosity of the earth.
Reduction of thermohaline circulation
Like most natural mechanisms, the global climate system has a certain amount of built-in means. But overcome a certain limit and the factors of coercion, or environmental processes that affect the climate, will prevail. There may be feedback, which will change the climate for decades or centuries ahead.
One nightmare scenario will be realized when global climate change will melt the Arctic ice too quickly. The fresh water that will emerge as a result will spread throughout the North Atlantic Ocean, close the cycle of global currents vital to maintaining the global climate. This cycle is called thermohaline circulation. Thermohaline circulation controls the heat and density of currents, and its movement helps distribute heat around the world. For example, Atlantic surface waters warm up near Florida and head north-east to Europe, which partly explains the temperate maritime climate in London, although it is on the same latitude with Calgary in Canada and Kiev in Ukraine.
Studies show that in the past, thermohaline circulation has already stopped, apparently because of the massive discharges of fresh water that occur during the decline of glacial periods. Whether such cancellation take place due to climate change is not yet clear, but the bulk of the data says that thermohaline circulation should slow down.
In the worst case, the consequences of a miniature ice age combined with other effects of climate change will be seismic.
Super Earthquake in the Cascadia Zone
Western states of America and Canada are threatened by a powerful event: an earthquake of magnitude 8.0 or higher. Cascadia subduction zone – a zone 1000 km long, where the Juan de Fuca slides under another North American slab – is now at rest, which lasts long enough for inexperienced residents to set up cities everywhere.
To imagine the magnitude of the super-earthquake that may break out, it is enough to recall how a similar event affected the opposite side of the Ring of Fire, in Japan. In 2011, the Tohoku earthquake of 9.0 points and the subsequent tsunami killed 18,000 people, caused an accident in Fukushima and resulted in a damage of $ 200 billion. All this happened in an area ready for earthquakes, just not so great.
Such an earthquake and tsunami has a chance of 1 to 10 to hit the Pacific Northwest in the second half of this century. With current readiness and awareness, such an event will destroy the Interstate 5 corridor that runs along the West Coast, kill thousands of people and leave millions homeless and hungry. And with a probability of 30%, a subsequent smaller earthquake will occur about the same time frame. In short, there was only a matter of time.
For those who like to indulge in disasters, nature offers many opportunities. Just ask the dinosaurs.
February 15, 2013 over Chelyabinsk in Russia, a fireball exploded, knocked out the windows, but did not harm anyone to death. If he fell to the ground, tens of thousands of people would perish. Despite everything, this event showed that the Russian roulette with the participation of the Earth and the asteroid was not over yet.
A few hours after that incident, a space stone three times more than Chelyabinsk whistled between the Earth and its artificial satellites. If this killer of cities collapsed into a densely populated place like Moscow, there is a high probability that there would be no more lives within the Moscow Ring Road. Millions of people would have died.
Of course, 71% of the Earth’s surface is covered by water and many large regions of the world remain sparsely populated. In the rare case, when a massive stone really falls to Earth, it has a very small chance to strike at a populated point. But the destroyer of states or even planets will precisely arrive, the question is only when. Maybe earlier than we think.
For example, Apophis – an asteroid the size of a nice little house – can kiss our atmosphere in 2029 and, perhaps, crash right into us in 2036 on the way back. Astronomers are optimistic, thinking that this will not happen, but if it does, we will need to greet a piece of the 300-megaton atomic bomb, as well as subsequent fires, famine and power outages.
Global economic collapse
While experts and politicians like to gossip about the global economic collapse in order to increase their electorate, economists are not sure about the chances of such a collapse. This is a delicate problem, in part because forecasts can distort the very system they are trying to describe, and in part because the collapse can come from disparate sources, from deep and protracted depression to rampant inflation. Economists are still trying to unravel the collapse that has already occurred.
While China is trying to raise its stock market, and the European Union is struggling to define an economic policy suitable for the diverse needs of its member states, the indicators are slightly less obvious. Against the background of the deterioration of the global climate and the struggle for energy, we can expect deterioration.
Or not. In the end, this is the nature of this grim science: risk and uncertainty.
Some say that the world will end in fire, others in the ice, and others in artificial intelligence. One, two, three …
On the one hand, it’s hard to imagine that we can be so stupid that we create a monstrous Frankenstein without a “off” button. But do not forget that some garage hackers or industrialists, obsessed with a desire for profit, could set themselves a firm goal – to create artificial intelligence at all costs.
Further our destiny can be defined not by the robot, compressing us for a throat. A society that is not prepared for massive job cuts can face an equally serious problem than the notorious Hollywood robot. If robots start destroying jobs in millions, people will not be in the best situation.
Optimists insist that these issues will be solved by themselves, and economists – that technology creates more jobs than it destroys. But even ignoring the risk created by machines with superintelligence, capable of self-healing and destroying humanity in a split second, we will still face one of the most transforming moments in social and psychological history. Even our unwillingness can become catastrophic.
The Third World War
Perhaps it is hard to imagine the disaster more serious than the world facing the threat of widespread tactical nuclear strikes, cyber attacks and biological weapons. We did not consider this idea seriously since the Cold War. But when experts from different fields were interviewed at the World Economic Forum, which event would be the most likely and the worst in the next 10 years, guess what they said?
The causes of the possible Third World War are closely intertwined: the lack of food and water security, financial crises, climate change, infectious diseases and deep social instability. Add to this the rise of nationalism, dubious territorial claims from large states, Japanese militarization and terrorist pseudo-states, and the picture will start to inspire fear.
Of course, it can be argued that our global cohesion impedes any large-scale conflict; We will simply lose more than we received. The US is the largest consumer of Chinese products, and China – American banks, and their economies are so closely connected that any conflict will result in mutual guaranteed destruction of the economy. But during the First World War, few believed that it would happen. At the same time, then people were not threatened with the prospect of nuclear extinction. They also did not have access to satellite reconnaissance and instant communications. The third world war would be irrational, but not impossible.