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Jack Kelly: Sky-falling threats

Liberal Chicken Littles should focus on asteroids

Sunday, June 30, 2002

On Father's Day, an asteroid the size of a football field came within what for astronomers is a hair's breadth of striking us. Asteroid 2002 MN came within 75,000 miles of Earth, the second-closest recorded near miss by any asteroid. Had it struck the Earth, it would have had the same impact as a 10-megaton nuclear bomb, said astronomers at Britain's National Space Center.

 
  Jack Kelly is national security writer for the Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio (jkelly@post-gazette.com). 
 

The odds that an asteroid actually will strike our planet are remote, the scientists said. But it's happened. An asteroid a little bit larger than 2002 MN flattened 800 square miles of forest near Tunguska, Siberia, in 1908. A much larger asteroid is thought to have whacked into what is now Mexico 65 million years ago, kicking up dust and debris that covered the entire planet, and triggering a prolonged winter that killed off the dinosaurs.

I offer this up for those of you who enjoy fretting about environmental doom. If one of those big suckers strikes us again -- kaboom! -- that's all she wrote for the human race, the elephants, the squirrels and the furbish lousewort.

Astronomers for the U.S. Air Force and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration are trying to map the location and trajectory of large asteroids. If one of these were on a collision course with Earth, it is possible to deflect or destroy it with nuclear-tipped ballistic missile interceptors.

Of course, if we deployed an ABM system that could break up asteroids, it would be child's play to intercept intercontinental ballistic missiles. Liberals don't want to do this. So even though the threat of asteroid strike is real (though remote), and there is a technological solution (though expensive), protecting the Earth from asteroid Armageddon has never been an environmentalist cause. Greens would rather fret about something that is much less of a problem (if it's a problem at all), and about which we could do next to nothing if it were.

Two days after our close call with Asteroid 2002 MN, The New York Times published yet another scare story about global warming. In Alaska, "the average temperature has risen about 7 degrees over the last 30 years," the Times said.

This was news to the scientists at the Alaska Climate Research Center. Their data from 1971 to 2000 showed mean temperature increases ranging from 2.26 degrees Fahrenheit (Anchorage) to 4.16 F (Fairbanks). The EPA report which the Times said was the basis for its story said that warming in Alaska's interior has been only about 3 F in the last 100 years.

In other words, the Times story was a crock, like its Aug. 19, 2000, story that the North Pole was melting. Tourists on an ice-breaker saw open water in the midst of polar ice. This was a sight, the Times said, "presumably never before seen by humans." Actually, this was a sight humans could have seen every summer for centuries. Though roughly 90 percent of the high Arctic is covered with ice in summer, about 10 percent of it is open water, said Howard Fienberg of Tech Central Station.

Climate is always changing. In the last 10,000 years, the world has been both warmer and cooler than it is today. Temperatures now are a tad on the cool side, about 2 F below the medieval warm period of 600 A.D. to 1100 A.D., wrote Andrew Kenny in The Spectator, a British journal. During that period Greenland was actually green, there were vineyards in southern England, and life was better than in the "little ice age" which followed.

A good environmental scare needs two ingredients -- an impending catastrophe, and someone to blame for it, Kenny said.

"One of the real threats to mankind is the danger of a collision with a large asteroid," he said. "It has happened in the past with catastrophic effect, and it will probably happen again. But there are no conferences, resolutions, gatherings protests or newspaper headlines about asteroid impacts. The reason is that you cannot find anyone suitable to blame for them. If you could persuade people that President Bush or the oil companies were responsible for the asteroids, I guarantee there would be a billion-dollar campaign to 'raise awareness' about the asteroid danger."

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