The beauty and mystery of nature and outer space are awe-inspiring - until one considers that these forces, like plastered hooligans at a soccer match, could quickly and without warning hit us over the head with a break and make humanity a thing of the past. Earthquakes, super storms, exploding stars, and rocketing space debris have all had our name on them from the beginning! From deep freezes that created ice deserts to comets that almost ended the world, here are some of the worst natural disasters we narrowly avoided.
The 2012 Solar Storm Missed Humanity by a Week
Movies and TV are escapist fun: it's why we flock to them, especially all those apocalypse and natural disaster movies from the 1990s and early 2000s. But the real thing is far from a laughing matter.
In 2014, NASA confirmed that two years prior, in July 2012, a solar storm more powerful than any in over a hundred years almost hit our planet. Known as a CME, or coronel mass ejection, a solar storm or solar flare is ultraviolet radiation and X-rays followed by clouds of magnetized plasma ejecting from the sun. In our case, this dangerous combination could have reached Earth at light speed.
Specialists at NASA believe it would take about a full day for this kind of storm to reach us. Then, upon contact, all of our electrical grids and anything relying on them would be fried, setting us back several hundred years as far as technology is concerned. This is in addition to what it could potentially do to biological life forms and the environment. An earth-wide blackout.
According to Daniel Baker, a physicist at the University of Colorado, "If it had hit we would still be picking up the pieces," and according to The Washington Post, if the solar flare had happened a week earlier, our planet would have been in the storm's direct trajectory.
The Toba Supervolcano Pushed Humans to Near-Extinction
Thousands of years ago, Earth buried the most destructive volcano ever known to exist. But it still lurks...
Thankfully for the human species and perhaps all life on Earth, the Toba Supervolcano is now submerged under a lake on the Indonesian island of Sumatra - so we're safe for now.
However, 70,000 years ago, a level-8 cataclysmic explosion erupted from Toba, spewing 2,800 cubic kilometers of of ash, rock, and magma. Science writer Sam Kean theorizes that the eruption's cloud of ash blocked out the sun for several years; temperatures dropped dramatically; grasslands, big game, and types of fruit disappeared. All of this reduced the relatively small human population to around 5,000 individuals who had to experience another Ice Age for quite some time.
The Laki Volcano Erupted and Nearly Wiped Out Agriculture
Volcanoes seem to be a strong argument that our planet is the equivalent of an angsty teenager: moody, unpredictable, and plagued by pimples that can take out entire continents. The 1783 eruption of Laki, on Iceland, might as well have been a screaming match about curfews. Only instead of slamming doors, close to quarter of the Icelandic population may have been killed off.
The cataclysmic eruption occurred around June 8 and lasted for eight months, spewing lava and ash along a range a little over 14 miles (23 km) out of many volcanic vents rather than a single volcano. While the eruption wasn't the largest in recorded history, the amount of material ejected had a far more lasting impact than other volcanoes.
In Iceland alone, the eight mega-tonnes of sulfur dioxide and fluorine that were released stayed relatively close to the earth's surface and mixed with vapor in the air to cause acid rain. Other gases were heavier and collected on grass, trees, plants, and crops, asphyxiating livestock and humans alike. It's estimated that close to a quarter of the Icelandic population died of the resulting famine and disease caused by the eruption. Because of the effects of the eruption and successive gases released, the entire northern hemisphere experienced colder temperatures and the haze left over from sulfur and fluorine.
The Inuit people, Russian explorers, continental Europeans, and even the Chinese give several repots from the time of colder temperatures and a gas haze.
Had the eruption taken place in a part of the world with a higher population or in a major breadbasket, like Ukraine, the immediate and long term effects could have been far worse for the entire world.
The Jose Barilla Comet of 1883 Just Missed Earth
For thousands of years, people have gazed in wonder at the majestic beauty of the cosmos. Philosophers, writers, religious leaders, and star-crossed lovers all immortalized themselves referring to the stars. Little did they know that some of these heavenly bodies were coming straight for us!
In 1883, at the Zacatecas Observatory in Mexico, astronomer Jose Bonilla caught sight of a comet in August of that year. Unsure of exactly what it was that he was observing, Bonilla reported his findings to a French newspaper, L'Astronomie, three years later. At the time it was believed that dust or debris was just covering his lens, but modern analysis is painting a more grim picture.
Hector Manterola of the National Autonomous University in Mexico believes that what Bonilla saw was a collection of pieces of a large comet, all of which had come very close to earth. He and his fellow scientists believe that the smaller pieces were part of one large comet roughly a billion tonnes in mass now known as the Bonilla Comet.
When Manterola and other scientists used parallax calculations (that is, comparing how an object looks when viewed from different directions), they confidently concluded that the comet and its smaller fragments were as close as 600 kilometers above the earth. Furthermore, they were sure that if the fragments alone had made contact with the earth, human extinction could have occurred.