In Case Of Emergency

Originally published in the Informanté newspaper on Friday, 26 May, 2017.

Last year October, I mentioned how resilient our planet was – how it has survived major catastrophic events that killed up to 85% of the species of our planet at a time. Because, yes, our little blue-green planet is not quite as fragile as we expect it to be. Life, after all, finds a way. However, we – and our way of life – is quite a bit more fragile than the planet, and that has concerned us for quite a while now.

Scientists even have a term for that risk – a Global Catastrophic Risk. It is defined as a hypothetical future event that could cripple or destroy modern civilization. If it could cause human extinction, it is termed an existential risk. Thus, while a global catastrophic risk could kill the vast majority of life on earth, humanity could at least still recover from it. An existential risk, however, would destroy our species. There is no coming back from that.

Given our rather human prevalence for not quite grasping statistics, we tend to think the chance of this is rather minor. We could not be more wrong. Many of these events have happened before, and we thus have some idea of their likelihood. That is where statisticians with their mathematical models come in, and the results are quite shocking. 

The Global Challenges Foundation – specifically founded to attempt to identify and limit global catastrophic events – revealed in its 2016 Annual Report that the average person is five times more likely to die during a human extinction event than in a car crash. In a 2008 expert survey, it was found that the estimated probability for a human extinction event during the next century was 19%! 

So what are these events? Well, they are generally grouped into two categories – Anthropogenic (or human caused) and non-anthropogenic. Non-anthropogenic are those we usually think about when we think extinction events – things like asteroid strikes, which is calculated to be a one-in-a-million chance during the next hundred years. After all, the Chicxulub asteroid did cause the extinction of non-avian dinosaurs just 66 million years ago. 

It also includes the possibility of extra-terrestrial invasion, although no evidence has been found of extra-terrestrials yet, my article about the Drake Equation last year April should give some ideas as to why.  Others include cosmic threats. A close supernova, or a gamma ray burst would certainly do that, but neither are very likely. Then, of course, there is the 1% chance identified that the planet Jupiter could cause Mercury’s orbit to become unstable, and one of the four outcomes there would be a collision with the Earth.

Other include global pandemics, a mega tsunami, and even the eruption of a super-volcano – such as the Toba eruption in Indonesia about 71 500 years ago that caused a global volcanic winter of 6 to 10 years and severely reduced the human population of earth, as evidence by a genetic bottleneck occurring around that time in our evolution. However, as it turns out, the greatest threat to our existence is anthropogenic threats. Those we made ourselves.

The bleeding edge of technology has always presented some problems, but currently we are expanding on several fronts that could affect our own survival. The two front-runners currently are super intelligent artificial intelligences and molecular nanotechnology weapons. The emergence of these two technologies would certainly spell our end if not handled properly. A super intelligent AI would suddenly supplant humans and improve itself so quickly we could never hope to contain it. We would become comparable to ants against its intelligence – and since when do we negotiate with ants? Would we expect it to be any different? 

Molecular nanotechnology allows construction on an atomic scale – small machines that could literally reshape matter. Should they be improperly programmed, they could replicate out of control, and consume our biosphere. Nevertheless, even should this not happen, we already have several technologies that could lead to extinction. While nuclear weapons have so far only been used twice, there still exists enough of them to scourge the earth. Biotechnology could be used to create biological weapons – a human-created pandemic that spirals out of control! 

Simpler still, we could just exhaust the earth of its resources, leaving us unable to support the billions of people currently living of earth! Alternatively, as we‘ve witnessed already, we could just ignore the dangers of climate change, and find that the planet’s climate has become hostile to our way of life. 

So what can we do to defend against this? Well, the Norwegian government already started with a project. On the island of Spitsbergen in the Svalbard archipelago, they created the Global Seed Vault. Situated just 1300 km from the North Pole, they started to preserve a wide variety of plant seeds to protect against widespread ecological disruption, and allow us to reseed the planet, as it were, should a global catastrophic event occur. African seeds were amongst the first to enter, as the Southern African Development Community has for years been sending seed samples to Norway for protection against the unthinkable.

The location was considered ideal, since it was not located near any tectonic activity and was located under the permafrost near the Arctic pole. A feasibility study had determined that the seed vault, operating unaided, could preserve most seeds for hundreds of years – possibly even thousands for some seeds. Naturally, humanity has managed to put even our Doomsday seed vault in danger though our own actions.

With global warming accelerating, the permafrost that was supposed to provide protection, and was thought to be permanent, turned out to be anything but. Last week, as summer approached, the vault found its entrance flooded after ‘permanent’ permafrost started to melt for the first time in forever. Luckily, only the entrance flooded, and not the vault, but still – it was enough for the Norwegian government to start installing drainage ditches they did not think they would ever need. 

We need to be careful however. These risks are quite difficult to calculate, and may even be underestimated due to observation selection effects. Just because a complete extinction event has never occurred, does not mean it will not – after all, if it had occurred, there would be no survivors, and we would have no idea it ever happened. So take a moment to reflect just how fragile our existence is on this world, and how lucky we are to be here. Life is precious. We should start acting like it.

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