Tempting as it is to regard the explosion over Chelyabinsk, Russia Friday morning as an isolated event akin to a sonic boom from a low-flying jet, meteor bursts and meteorite impacts often have devastating effects upon the Earth. According to Margaret Campbell-Brown, an astronomer at the University of Western Ontario in London, Canada, the 1200 injured residents experienced a shock wave from a rock that was the largest to hit this planet since the Tunguska blast of 1906.
Minnesota and the Twin Cities are no strangers to celestial collisions occurring in their back yards. The community of Rock Elm southwest of Menominee, Wisconsin is located near an impact crater nearly six kilometers in diameter. Another crater near Manson, Iowa measures nearly 35. The fireplace of the historic Gunflint Lodge near Marais, Minnesota is constructed from rocks splattered from the crater near Sudbury, Ontario, which at 250 kilometers in diameter, is the second largest crater ever discovered--larger than the meteor that hit what is now Chicxulub, Mexico and killed the dinosaurs.
These meteor impact events occurred millions of years ago, but humans have conjectured throughout history that a collision with an extraterrestrial object might cause the Apocalypse. Most major religions feature an End Time or Day of Judgment where mankind, as stated in the Book of Deuteronomy, “shall utterly be destroyed, scattered among the nations the Earth” with only the elect surviving.
Many modern-day humans share that conviction. A Pew Research Center/Smithsonian survey from April, 2010 found that 31% of Americans believed that an asteroid will collide with Earth by 2050. An October, 2000 issue of “Discover: The magazine of science, technology and the future” identified asteroid impact as number one of the “20 Ways the World Could End.” On a statistical basis, an object a half mile wide hits the Earth every 250,000 years whose impact “would touch off firestorms followed by global cooling from dust kicked up.” Humanity might survive, but its culture would not. An asteroid ten times that size would cause major extinctions.
In contemporary culture, novelists as old as Jules Verne and as modern as Arthur C. Clarke warned about an impact event causing the Earth’s destruction. Plots of recent films like “Armageddon” and “Deep Impact” employed nuclear weapons to deflect these extraterrestrial doomsday missiles. Since the Earth accumulates anywhere from 37,000-78,000 tons of space debris every year (mostly dust-sized), Minnesotans ignore at their peril their ancestors’ fears that a major meteor impact might happen here.