The dinosaurs, as a group, were very successful, lasting a couple hundred million years. But they weren’t good at planning ahead. They failed to establish a space program.
Now, we who enjoy science fiction including the “what if” genre can be playful, with the exploring astronaut velociraptor radioing the dwarf iguanodon that an asteroid was headed toward earth so the iguanodon could launch a gravity assist satellite to tug the asteroid away. Instead, let’s be serious and see what kills huge numbers of animals and entire species, because it could happen to us.
First, the space part
Siberia, Russia’s relatively thinly populated northernmost region, is the site of the biggest meteor airbursts that we know of in the past century. The most recent you may have seen, since on February 15, 2013 stunned drivers’ dash cams showed it streaking through the atmosphere traveling over 40,000 miles an hour. When the heat of atmospheric friction caused the meteor to explode about 14.5 miles overhead near the city of Chelyabinsk, the shock wave shattered glass windows, injuring around 1500 people. No one was killed; it was sufficiently high that those in its path reported feeling extreme heat but weren’t burned alive. Thousands of buildings in six cities were heavily damaged. Terrified Russians wondered if we were attacking them or if their government had had yet another weapons disaster it wasn’t reporting.
The Chelyabinsk meteor, estimated at around 66 feet in diameter, was half the size of the 1908 meteor over forest wilderness near the Tunguska River. NASA estimates it was travelling around 33,500 miles an hour. Exploding about five miles above the ground, it flattened approximately 80 million trees over 830 square miles and killed perhaps three people. The explosion brightened the sky as far away as London, England, and released energy equivalent to about 185 Hiroshima-type atomic bombs. A witness 40 miles from the explosion was knocked from his chair by the blast wave and felt intense heat. NASA estimates this meteor was about 120 feet across.
Megafauna extinctions and the Younger Dryas impact hypothesis
Just a fancy way of saying lots of really big animals died at the end of the last ice age, especially from 11,000 to 13,000 years ago, and that a sudden return to ice age conditions began 12,800 years ago and lasted 1,000 years. America used to look like a hairier version of Africa, with the wooly rhinoceros, mammoths and mastodons, the huge American lion, the long-horned bison, and the American false cheetah (which may be why pronghorn are so fast). At the end of the last ice age, the number of large animals above 100 pounds drastically and suddenly diminished. Scientists have argued about why, and linked the disappearance to overhunting once people entered the continent. The bigger the prey, the more people would be fed. Prehistoric people stampeded herds off cliffs or set forest grass afire and speared or arrowed whatever flew or galloped out.
You can google prehistoric Australian wildlife to see the strange dinosaur-like marsupials that used to live there. A continent that once had large forests and grasslands now has a vast interior desert ringed with a smidgeon of the forest that used to be there. Destroy the trees that hold in water until it slowly evaporates and the area generally becomes grassland or desert.
Scientists knew game in Africa, Europe and Asia had learned to flee when they smelled or saw a human. As the last two continents settled, the Americas would have wildlife that wasn’t used to how dangerous we were; they’d be like protected animals at Yellowstone Park, where hunting’s forbidden. Or, perhaps the humans carried diseases that passed from them to other animals. Certainly the climate changed dramatically when the glaciers melted, yet huge animals had survived previous ice ages and interglacials. And look at how many animals became extinct. The huge short-faced bear probably delayed the settling of the Americas significantly all by himself. There were also the saber-cats, dire wolves, camels, huge ground sloths, and the teratorn, a giant bird of prey that may have inspired the legend of the Thunderbird. As you travelled south there were huge glyptodons, roughly the size and shape of a Volkswagen Beetle, and the bizarre South American relative of the horse, the Macrauchenia.
Evolving in North America the horse fortunately passed through Beringia to Asia before becoming extinct here. It’s was a mystery how the horse could have become extinct here, given how rapidly it reclaimed its old habitat once introduced by Spanish conquistadors.
Enter the Younger Dryas impact hypothesis, popularly known as the “Clovis Comet” theory. Since so many animals disappeared so fast, particularly between about 11,000 and 13,000 years ago, and we’d found the crater linked to the dinosaurs’ demise, perhaps an asteroid hit. No crater of the right date being found, it was suggested it might be one of the craters in the Great Lakes, or that it hit the huge ice sheet still covering Canada and part of North America, or that it was a large asteroid disintegrating with pieces falling in the Americas, Europe, and Africa. All four continents had significant extinctions, but North America had the most of all.
So the theory made the rounds of science TV as proponents and skeptics argued, as scientists do, marshalling the evidence supporting each side. The Clovis theory had some problems: some pseudo-science proponents and false evidence by one of the proponents. So it largely fell out of favor. Perhaps something extraterrestrial happened, but what and where?
In 2018 a Danish geological team found a geologically young 19-mile impact crater under Hiawatha Glacier in northwestern Greenland. Such a strike would have impacted North America the most. Score a big one for Clovis Comet proponents.
This is the progression of science. It never stays still; it always depends on new discoveries leading to new theories leading to new discoveries. We’ve been world leaders in science. American freedom is a wonderful thing; it’s why we’ve been such a powerhouse for invention and developed such a strong vibrant economy. We’ve had the benefits of the agricultural and medicinal discoveries of Native Americans, their contributions to our system of government through the Iroquois oral Great Law of Peace; crops and scientific discoveries of the ancient world, crops, agricultural methods and ideas from Africa and their significant contributions to our billion-dollar music industry, and the creativity that comes from a mixture of cultures.
Some have religious objections to evolutionary theory, but it’s a free country, and those who choose religious interpretations can choose them, while those who believe in science can choose denominations who find no conflict, or become agnostic or atheist. Religious freedom means freedom to practice your faith, and freedom from religion if that is your choice The Founding Fathers supported separation of church and state because they knew precisely how bad religions were at running states. Revolutionary War hero Paul Revere’s father was a French Huguenot, a Protestant fleeing Catholic persecution in France. English Catholics fled Protestant persecution, settling in Maryland. William Penn received permission from the Crown to establish a refuge for Quakers in Pennsylvania (Penn’s Woods). Various kings were all too happy to let the dissidents go, and here’s where they ended up.
But, sound public policy has to be based on reality, not faith. The problem comes when politicians enter the mix and become proponents of religious ideas they don’t accept themselves but pretend to so they can get votes of the faithful. We need an honest exchange of ideas from both sides. There isn’t a bird alive that flew on just one wing; we need the left wing and the right discussing the flaws in each other’s plans to get good public policy.
As a conservative Republican college student, I argued after class with my professors, advocating for the space program against those who thought it was a waste and more should go for social programs. The professors were more pacifistic than I was and knew research from space program tests would be quickly be applied to missiles carrying nuclear warheads. Google the benefits we’ve gotten from the space program: personal computers, cell phones, advances in medicine and technology. It’s employed numerous smart, educated people working together to solve problems, plus the supporting staff of secretaries, janitors, and everyone it takes to run a big program.
And, it could save our lives. We have a program to chart the asteroids that could destroy a city or a whole civilization or us as a species. But there’s a long way to go; no one saw the Chelyabinskmeteor coming,
The Arrow of Disease
This was the name of a Discover Magazine article I used while teaching college history. Jared Diamond, an American historian, anthropologist and geologist who teaches at UCLA, expanded that research into the Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns, Germs and Steel, which also was awarded best science book of the year. A second edition was subtitled A Short History of Man For the Past 13,000 Years. The third edition was subtitled The Fate of Human Societies.
The original “Arrow of Disease” article examined the question: why did the arrow point from Europe to America? Native Americans were decimated by European diseases. Scientists once thought the Americas were thinly settled; we now know population density was similar to Europe. We think of the Amazon Basin as untouched wilderness. We now know there was a large civilization there. The germs that went from Columbus’ sailors to other Native Americans travelled to their linked settlements and so thoroughly destroyed the population that the cities disappeared, the area became wilderness, and the few survivors are the scattered tribes we’ve seen on National Geographic as the Hispanic cultures close in.
Why did the arrow point only one way? Let’s go back to those extinctions at the end of the ice age. They deprived Native Americans of what otherwise could have been a livestock basis. They didn’t have aurochs, the huge fierce ancestor of cattle. No camels; the smaller llamas, alpaca and vicuna were all that was left of the camel family. They didn’t have horses. Europeans, Asians and Africans had been exposed to the diseases of their livestock for thousands of years; the survivors built up at least partial immunity. Native Americans had been left with few animals suitable for domestication. Their systems had no immunity to the new microbes, and the historical effect was devastating.
Pathogens are not to be taken lightly. They had the power to turn a continent of brown people into a continent of primarily white and black people; Native Americans are about one per cent of the population. Without the germs brought by the early Spaniards, they would have had a much tougher time conquering the mighty Aztecs or Incas. The mound builders would have been better able to withstand de Soto’s onslaught. By the time George Washington surveyed the Ohio River Valley, it was thinly settled and the tribes didn’t remember the mound builders. When the Pilgrims landed in 1620, all the local tribe except Squanto had been wiped out by disease. The Pilgrims interpreted this as God preparing a place for them.
As Jared Diamond pointed out, human societies get epidemics and pandemics from animals that live in groups. Measles, a childhood disease, wiped out entire Native American villages because they had no natural immunity to diseases from cattle. Deadly smallpox also came from cattle.
If a virus mutates enough to kill wolves, it may kill or sicken the entire pack. But wolf packs are the parents and the surviving litters and are reluctant to accept members of other packs. So the virus burns itself out, having killed its host. In herd animals, there are other animals to infect so the virus stays in the herd or group, constantly infecting new hosts.
We ignore history at our peril. Remember Black Death, which killed off roughly a third of Europe, and swept through repeatedly before it was conquered.
Coronavirus Covid 19
Bacteria and viruses constantly mutate. When one mutates enough to cross the species barrier, the new species has no immunity. The virus continues to mutate; some strains may be mild, others deadly.
We think the corona virus causing the current pandemic first jumped the species barrier to humans in Wuhan, China, because that’s where it was first discovered. The brave doctor who recognized there was a new virus sickening his patients warned the government, which tried to shut him up. Perhaps, with all the China-bashing President Trump was doing portraying himself tough on trade violations, they didn’t want it known as the Chinese virus. [True to style, he’s now labelled it the Chinese virus.] The brave doctor refused to shut up and disappeared, to the outrage of the Chinese citizens who knew he was trying to protect them. He died of the virus he discovered. Due to the Chinese government refusing to act appropriately, Pandora’s box opened. A month was lost where the virus could have been tamed.
But the Chinese government recognized its mistake and attacked the virus vigorously, developing a test for it, isolating the positive from the negative, and they continued to test, because the infected might not at first have enough of the virus in their system for the test to recognize. They isolated Wuhan from the rest of China and continue to isolate it, spraying the streets with sanitizer. An authoritarian government can order people around far more effectively than a democracy can. But American governments have always isolated those who had deadly diseases from the general population. While the virus spread around the world, President Trump and his administration were asleep at the switch. Senator Mitch McDonnell claimed Trump couldn’t prepare the country due to impeachment, which is a lie; impeachment was over. With plenty of warning, Trump continued to golf and hold rallies.
Scientists tried to figure out the host for this particular type of corona virus, thinking it might have begun with a snake, mutated to infect a pangolin, then spread to humans. China has “wet markets” containing many live species of animals in close quarters under severe stress, an ideal breeding ground for pathogens to pass from one to another.
Now it’s thought the bat is the carrier, which makes a lot more sense. Again referring to Jared Diamond’s model, bats live in colonies and in close quarters. The virus isn’t harmful for the bat, but it’s sure harmful for us. And of course the remedy isn’t to kill bats; they’re very useful in pollinating and keeping the mouse population under control. The corona family of viruses infects many species of animals and could make the jump from any one of them; the virus that made the jump, Covid 19, should have never left its petri dish. We know enough about infectious disease now that medical researchers test viruses before they make the jump. Medical researchers wanted to do more testing so they’d be ready with a cure once the virus made the leap to humans.
Trump’s meat-ax approach to cuts and extreme conservative Republican ideology that government should be small enough to strangle in a bathtub interfered with fighting the virus. Trump severely cut the Center for Disease Control, whose medical researchers go to other countries to help them fight new pathogens before they get to us. He wiped out a whole office devoted to stopping the spread of pandemics, saying the doctors could be hired back if needed. They were needed then.
Let’s see where mindless cost-cutting got us. Most Americans are homebound. There aren’t enough respirators and people are dying. Our stock market has crashed and unemployment soars; Trump has devastated the world’s strongest most stable economy. His policies are destroying our intellectual capital as older doctors and judges and others who make New York home die for the sin of living in a state with a Democratic governor and a Democratic mayor. Our brave medical staffs are dying of the disease they’re fighting because they don’t have enough personal protective equipment, and patients are dying for lack of care. Trump continues to refuse to use the War Powers Act to get enough equipment to sick or dying patients or their caretakers, and actually blamed Obama, claiming there wasn’t enough supplies due to the president who left in 2017, when it was Trump’s job to prepare for the pandemic that was circling the world.
Trump has parceled out medical supplies not to Americans who need them, but as political rewards. Outraged news anchors from mainstream news have reported that Republican governors received supplies they hadn’t even requested; Democratic governors not nearly enough. Our largest states, California and New York, have Democratic governors.
People are spread out in California; Los Angeles is notorious for its sprawl, so the virus has been easier to control. New York City, where people are densely packed, has seen rapidly rising death rates and their hospitals are overwhelmed. Hospital tents are now in Central Park. Governor Cuomo asked for respirators long before he needed them because he could see what was coming. Trump continues to lie and contradict the medical professionals. When some are risking their lives or dying due to giving patient care, he accused medical personnel of stealing the supplies instead of admitting that some respirators and protective equipment needed here was shipped overseas, and others were shipped to states who needed them far less than New York.
As Cuomo and many others have said, the respirators and personal protective equipment should have been manufactured under the War Powers Act long ago. Trump still refuses to use the War Powers Act for all of the needed equipment, which could be sent to places where the infection is most severe, then those places can release them to the next areas in crisis from the virus.
No other president ever has handed an epidemic this way. Besides being Alaskans and Arizonans and New Yorkers and Texans, we are all Americans. We saw how little aid Trump gave to American citizens in Puerto Rico after they were devastated by a hurricane. Did we really think he wouldn’t do it to the rest of us?
Our government agencies have treasures of knowledge, not just the books and blueprints, but the scientists and engineers with the experience to get things accomplished. And President Trump has cut, cut, cut, throwing out scientists who can help us understand how to be safe. The universe has all kinds of ways of killing us, even if the facts are inconvenient for certain industries. The Clean Air and Water Act saved lives; once our rivers were so polluted Ohio’s Cuyahoga actually caught fire. Fish can’t live in such rivers, at least not any that anyone should be eating. People die from polluted air, especially those with asthma. Trump’s rolled back fuel efficiency standards and other regulations that save human lives. Trump appointed people to run agencies that were opposed to their very purpose. His appointees have decimated the State Department, firing or forcing the retirements of people whose expertise on other countries could keep us from devastating wars.
Instead of supporting the states fighting the virus, Trump claims he has to keep equipment in reserve. The reserve is for just such times.
Since the federal government our taxes have paid for has pretty much left us on our own, we have to isolate and do what the Czechs did in successfully fighting the virus. My mask protects you if I have the virus, your mask protects me. Our gloves protect each other from transmission from common surfaces, where the virus can stay for hours or days. Keeping social connections by phone and social networks keeps us far safer than congregating together. It doesn’t matter how large the group is; one infected person can infect others who will infect others. Yet Trump said American churches should be full on Easter, and some Republican governors have allowed churches to remain open for political reasons, not sound public policy reasons. Most pastors have protected their flocks by going online. The more extreme have not. Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University invited the students back, to the outrage of parents in the know, and the outrage of Lynchburg, Virginia’s mayor.
Frustrated anchors have said Trump should not be covered live because many people still believe him. If he’s covered on tape delay, the media can broadcast him only if he’s telling the truth because people who believe him over the medical professionals are going to die at a faster rate than the rest of us.
The universe can kill us in a number of ways, which is why scientific research is important and we should support it. Data from our Voyager probes show that asteroid or comet impacts happen far more often than we realized. In fact, when our space program was in its infancy, geologists mistook impact craters for volcanic craters. Dr. Gene Shoemaker, an American geologist, conclusively established that craters on the moon were from impacts and helped establish the field of astrogeology.
Since a meteor airburst or hit can be easily mistaken for a missile attack, it behooves us to reduce international tensions and to choose, uh, how to say this diplomatically--leaders who are stable and knowledgeable and put the country above their own private interests.
The United States and Russia came close to war due to the suspicions of Soviet chairman Andropov and a malfunctioning early warning system. Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov rightly interpreted what appeared to be a nuclear missile coming from the United States as a computer error. Russian policy was mutually assured destruction. Petrov knew an American first strike would include a massive launch, and that the satellite system’s reliability had been questioned. Knowing that if we’d actually launched a first strike it would be massive, he reported it and other errors as false alarms. For exhibiting suchremarkable good sense, he was removed to another location; rewarding him would have embarrassed the commanders and scientists responsible for the problem.
Human error has caused a lot of catastrophes, such as nuclear accidents such as the Russian Chernobyl and Japanese Fukushima (which is still pouring radiation into the Pacific Ocean). It is dangerous to have a president who repeatedly insults foreign leaders, even mocking them, as President Trump did with North Korea’s leader, antagonizing him before Kim Jong-un flattered him, after which Trump declared his love for him.
The Republican Party needs to stop the extreme ideology and look at the costs of their cuts in terms of death, illness, and our economy. And the destruction of the seed corn, the science and institutional knowledge that will bring the advances of the future. Government should not be small enough to drown in a bathtub as claimed by anti-tax Republicans. Our government needs to be strong enough to do what governments need to do.
And the head of the government needs to obey the laws of this country, including the Constitution of the United States of America, and stop violating the emoluments clause, stop obstructing justice, and follow a foreign policy supporting America’s national interests instead of Russia’s. Trump’s Russian connections were propping him up financially for decades before he was elected.
He should be impeached, because as the Boston Globe editorial board thundered, there is blood on his hands.
Lois Gilbert is has taught history at University of Alaska and worked as a full-time journalist. She has an extended major in history, a major in journalism, and the equivalent of a minor in political science.