12 June 2010

6 Extraterrestrial disasters that make us glad we are on Earth

Earth has plenty of natural disasters and tragedies; we have tornadoes that rip up the Midwest yearly, hurricanes that flatten and drown cities, and volcanic eruptions that evacuate entire island nations. But the rest of the solar system is a much harsher place, with disasters that would end life as we know it if they happened here.

1. Volcanoes on Io

Volcanoes are a big deal here on Earth; they are worshiped as gods, and rightfully feared for their ability to both create and destroy. I haven’t heard of any other natural disaster that has caused entire civilizations to disappear or to have to pack up and move; In my lifetime I can cite Mt Pinatubo and Montserrat as two cases where an entire island nation has had to jump ship because the volcano they lived on tried to kill them. And we have some doozies; calderas are what we also call super volcanoes, which are volcanoes that stretch for hundreds of miles and have the power to kill us all.

volcanoes on lo01

A moon of Jupiter, or a teenager's face; you be the judge.

On Jupiter’s moon, Io, that kind of thing is a daily occurrence. The stress of passing through Jupiter’s massively powerful magnetic field, along with being bathed in radiation from the giant planet causes the moon to boil over with sulfur volcanoes constantly.

The volcanic explosions can toss material up to 120 miles into the sky, and generate lava flows that are hundreds of miles long. That would be like Krakatoa, which changed the world climate for several years after it blew up, every day, several times a day. Imagine the planet where Anakin Skywalker got his legs chopped off (you saw Revenge of the Sith, right? Oh, *SPOILER*), except without an atmosphere, and constantly bathed in radiation.

volcanoes on lo02

2. Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9

On earth, we have one event that appears to have been a comet impact. It happened back in the early 20th century over Tunguska in Siberia. The impact leveled every tree for 1000 square miles. We got off easy.

shoemaker levy 9

See those little brown bruises on the upper right part of the image? Each one of those was an impact site. What happened was this; the comet broke into several pieces because the same gravity and magnetism that causes Io to burp sulfur all over itself also ripped the comet apart. And then the gravity dragged those pieces into a crash course with the big planet. The result was a cataclysm that would have likely pushed the reset button for life on Earth. Many of the stains in the picture were the size of Earth, with the fireballs from the impact reached 24,000 ° Kelvin, that is 42740.33 ° Fahrenheit. The surface of the sun is 9941 °, by contrast.

That was over four times the temperature of the sun, over an area the size of our entire planet. The apocalypse in the movie 2012 was pretty lame, by comparison.

3. Jupiter’s great Red Spot

Speaking of Jupiter, it is home to the worst hurricane in the solar system. The Red Spot is a storm that has been raging for anywhere from 180 to 345 years, and is roughly 3 Earths in diameter. That should really put Jupiter’s size into perspective; our entire planet is the scale they use to measure parts of it.

jupiter red spot01

And to think, most buildings make us feel insignificant in comparison...

Hurricane Katrina was awful; it was huge, and had winds gusting up to 175 mph, and pretty much wiped New Orleans off the face of the earth. The winds in the Great Red Spot are around 268 Mph, which is more like a tornado than a hurricane. at that speed, it could put a piece of straw through the moon. Scientists aren’t quite sure why the spot has persisted for so long, or why it is red. Apparently sometimes it disappears from sight in the normal human spectrum of light, but it is still there and shows up on infrared. Apparently, some day it may just wink out of existence, when whatever is driving it stops. Or maybe if the monoliths get pulled into it.

jupiter red spot02

4. Neptune’s Winds

At this point, the Earth comparisons start to dwindle, since the scale of these things reach a point that there is no analog on our planet. Neptune’s winds definitely fits the bill. The highest natural wind ever recorded on Earth was on Mt Washington New Hampshire back in 1934, and it reached 231 Mph. Neptune’s wind regularly coasts at, get this, 600 meters per second. I did the math, and I can’t help but think something must be off, because that figures to winds of 1,324 miles per hour. For perspective, the speed of sound is 768 miles per hour.

neptune wind

I can't think of anything that adequately describes this, except "Holy C**P."

Neptune is home to some of the most violent weather in the solar system (well, duh…), and fortunately since it has no surface, we don’t have to worry about anyone ever trying to land there. Like Jupiter, Neptune has it’s own spot, called the Great Dark Spot (so imaginative, those scientists…), but unlike Jupiter’s, which is a giant storm filled with clouds, Neptune’s is a giant cyclonic wind with no clouds. In fact, it is basically a giant hole in the planet, where the winds are spinning so fast that the atmosphere itself opened up and shows off the planet’s undergarments. The spot comes and goes every few years, behaving a bit more like Earth hurricanes (except, you know, they last for years), which makes sense since seasons on Neptune last 40 years.

5. Mars’s Dust Storms

You would think that since Mars is little more than half the size of Earth that things there would be less extreme, but that just isn’t the case. In fact, almost everything is bigger; bigger canyons, bigger glaciers, bigger volcanoes. In fact, the only reason the volcanoes didn’t make the list is because they are all extinct. However, our tiny red neighbor from the way-out-there-verse has one thing that blows the rest away (pardon the pun); the biggest dust storms in the solar system. For those of you that aren’t die hard Doom fans, this is Mars on a normal day:

mars dust storm

From up here, it is hard to imagine that it's crawling with demons. (According to video games)

Mars has dust storms fairly regularly, but sometimes they grow in scope to the point that even millions of miles away, the thought is terrifying. Some of the storms could easily cover an entire continent or two on Earth, although sometimes they grow to cover the entire planet. The really severe storms kick up enough dust to actually cause the planet to warm up as it traps sunlight. If mankind ever sets up a base on Mars, you can just about count on it being the new universal Australia, where only the criminals are sent.

6. Venus: The Worst Possible Conclusion of Global Warming

Whether you think humans are causing global warming or not, it’s a fact, sometimes the temperature of the Earth changes and sometimes those changes are a warming trend. Most worst case scenarios wind up with a Waterworld-type conclusion with flooded cities and destitute, hungry people with no land to farm and Kevin Costner roaming free in tight clothing (eek…) Even that horror pales in comparison to what is happening on the pretty, white “star” many of us see every night as the sun goes down.

venus01

Venus with clouds, and a quick glimpse at her surface.

venus02

Venus’s surface reveals her to be the pock-marked h00k*r that she is beneath that beautiful veil of cloud-makeup. The clouds themselves are pure acid rain; sulfuric acid. The ambient air temperature changes little from day to night, averaging 460 degrees Fahrenheit nearly all the time. In addition to the ungodly heat and everything-melting rain, the air pressure on the surface of the planet is 93 times that of Earth at sea level. Imagine being at the bottom of the ocean, and that the ocean was hot enough to melt metal and highly corrosive.

The really scary thing is that scientists have found evidence that suggests that a billion years ago, Venus was a lot like Earth in terms of atmosphere and water content, but that a “runaway greenhouse effect” resulted in its current state.

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