Comets and meteor showers are enormously entertaining, but they were historically considered omens of catastrophe around the world, and probably for good reason. With the Orionid Shower on our imminent horizon, perhaps it’s time to take a look at the type of species we are. Humans have survived meteor strikes, floods on a literally biblical scale, ice-ages, and volcanic eruptions that have spanned the skies. We are a species that survives, and the universe is about to provide us with an opportunity to see her grandeur up close and reflect on our own position in the cosmic scheme.
Every year, Earth passes through the debris field left behind by Halley’s Comet; those tiny rocks and dust particles enter the atmosphere and burn up, creating shooting stars. This year’s meteor shower peaks in the early morning on October 21. If you are up before the sun rises in your area, look in the direction of the constellation Orion to see the shooting stars. You need to be a little patient, though, because at best you can expect to see one or two every minute or so.
We are all familiar with the Hollywood cliché of a giant meteor headed for Earth, which the hero must stop in order to prevent the destruction of civilization. Nowadays we may enjoy seeing this scenario play out safely on the silver screen, but it was not always such an outlandish idea. There is mounting evidence that at the end of the last ice age – around 12,000 years ago – a comet or meteor struck the Earth somewhere in the ice around Canada causing huge instant melting.
The geological evidence suggests that the sea level rose by tens of feet in a matter of weeks! No wonder we can find flood myths across the world in many different cultures. Today, we only have a fragmented and vague memory of the disaster that struck Earth, told in stories such as Noah’s Ark.
Another major event occurred around 5-6000 years ago when a meteor hit somewhere in the Indian ocean, causing a tsunami at least 300 feet tall.
Although meteor strikes are incredibly rare, we probably have far more legitimate reasons to be worried about them than we do about anthropogenic (manmade) climate change. The last major meteor strike to hit our planet was in 1908, in a region called Tunguska, Siberia. The event flattened 770 square miles of forest and lit up the night sky as far away as England. People in London reported that they were able to read a book at midnight only by illumination from the sky.
Survival of the Species
While that is certainly scary to think about these astronomical disasters, they show that humans were able to survive devastation in the past far surpassing anything we have seen or even imagined in modern times. We are survivors.
The good news is that such events are exceedingly rare and highly unlikely to be seen in our lifetime – and soon we will also have the technology to detect and prevent them. If a meteor on collision course with Earth is discovered early enough, it only takes a small nudge to divert it – one of many good reasons to conquer space.
In the meantime, you can enjoy the safe spectacle of the Orionid meteor shower from the comfort of your backyard.