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The end of the world as we know it

This week is 'disaster preparedness' week in B.C. Are you ready for what the Universe might throw at you?

There's a running joke in Pemberton that after being beset by fire and flood from the 2009 spate of forest fires and the 2010 Meager Creek landslide evacuations, we'll surely next be hit by a plague of locusts or a famine. We all laugh, but it isn't really funny. Along with these "everyday" disasters, there are far, far more serious threats that we should all be prepared for.

Imagine waiting for months as a kilometre-wide chunk of rock comes hurtling towards the Earth, holing up in your home as day turns to night, and scrabbling for food as the world's crops die. Or having only minutes of warning before a solar storm fritzes out the power grids around the world, taking out communication satellites and plunging us into the dark and cold. The collision of distant stars could, at any moment, fire a beam of high-energy radiation at our planet that would fry sea life at the base of our food chain. And if hazards from outer-space weren't enough to worry about, there are equal dangers lurking underfoot. Supervolcanoes under the bubbling vents of Yellowstone national park and other sulphuric sites hold the potential to erupt so massively that they coat a continent in centimetres of ash, sending us into a nuclear winter. The Pacific Northwest is by some counts overdue for a megaquake. And don't forget disease. Pandemic flu is expected to cull large swaths of the population, and fungi are evolving to take out our most important food crops.

These disasters might sound the stuff of Hollywood fiction. But they have all happened to the Earth before, and are all guaranteed to happen again. It's just a question of when.

Fortunately, people in the Sea to Sky have a higher-than-average supply of survival knowledge, access to good farmland in Pemberton and seafood in Howe Sound, plenty of wood to burn and rivers to tap for water and energy. Of all the places in the world to have to hole up to ride out a disaster, this isn't bad. But are we really ready for what the Universe might have in store?

COSMIC THREATS

Just this February, a 45-metre wide, 130,000 tonne asteroid squeaked by within 27,000 km of Earth — less than one tenth of the distance to the Moon, and a hair's breadth in terms of the vastness of space. Flybys like this are thought to happen about once every 40 years, with a collision every 1,200 years or so. Astronomers watching this particular incoming missile, called 2012 DA14, knew for a year in advance that it would miss us — but we are sure to run out of luck eventually.

Such collisions can be fatal on a planetary scale. Most famously, the dinosaurs' reign on Earth was brought to an end 65 million years ago when a 10-km wide chunk of rock hit the planet. Smaller, still-deadly collisions are far more common: NASA expects a two-kilometre wide rock, large enough to cause local extinctions, to hit us once or twice every million years. A tiny taste of what such collisions might be like was seen, coincidentally, also in February of this year, when a 17-metre wide meteor burned through the atmosphere and exploded over Russia, creating a shock wave that blew out glass from thousands of buildings and left a thousand people in need of medical care. That rock was too small for anyone to see it coming — it struck literally without warning. The last time something like that happened was in 1908, when a 60-metre rock exploded above Siberia, flattening 80 million trees over 2,000 square-kilometres. Incidents like this are expected every hundred years or so, and could take out a city 15 times as large as Vancouver.

A band of astronomers have made it their mission to track asteroids that stand a chance of colliding with Earth. NASA researchers have so far discovered 9,730 chunks of ice or rock that will likely pass close to us, of which 862 are bigger than a kilometre wide and 1,379 are labelled "potentially hazardous" to the planet. Perhaps the scariest contenders are the snappily-named asteroid 2007 VK184, a 130-metre wide rock, which is thought to have a one in 1,820 chance of hitting us in 2048; and a 325-metre wide rock called Apophis, named after an Egyptian god of chaos and destruction, which has a 1 in 135,000 chance of hitting us in 2036. Apophis is now 15 million kilometres away, and in telescope pictures looks like a harmless, giant potato. But a collision would be anything but harmless; it could wipe out a small country, and kick up enough dust to darken and cool the planet for a few years, playing havoc with crop yields.

Far less is known about smaller rocks like DA14 or the one that crashed into Russia, which could still take out entire cities or create tsunamis if they strike at sea. A private group of ex-astronauts and engineers, called the B612 Foundation (named after the asteroid that Le Petit Prince made his home), is aiming to do a better job at cataloguing those smaller threats, raising private funds to build and launch their own asteroid-spotting satellite by 2018.

Is there anything we can do about such threats? In 2012, an international effort was started by the German Space Agency's Institute of Planetary Research in Berlin, aiming to work on ways of shoving incoming asteroids out of our path. Project NEOShield has the Astrium space company seriously looking at how to do this, either by slamming a spacecraft into an incoming asteroid to nudge it out of the way (like a glancing snooker shot), or by sending a massive spacecraft to fly by an asteroid and pull it out of the way simply through gravity (a technique known as the "gravity tractor"), or by blowing something up close enough to the asteroid to puff it away. All of these things are possible with current technology, though actually developing and building something designed specifically to do this will still take years.

Perhaps more worrying are cosmic missiles that we can't see coming for long in advance, and which we have no way of deflecting. That includes comets on such a giant orbit that we have never seen them before, so their arrival comes as a complete surprise. The chance of such a rogue comet slamming into the Earth is about one every 16 million years — not something worth keeping you awake at night, but a serious possibility nonetheless. Comets are actually darker than asteroids and so harder to see, and they move faster, giving us probably only months of warning before they hit.

Another remote-but-serious worry is the chance of a "short-hard gamma ray burst" — a blast of energy that can be beamed out from two stars colliding or falling into black holes. The high-energy light released by such a blast, if aimed at Earth from within 200 parsecs, or one per cent of the distance of the Milky Way, would light up the sky in a blinding flash, cause cancer rates to increase, and chew a giant hole through the ozone layer that would scorch plants for nearly a decade. That's only expected to happen once every 300 million years or so — the last time it happened may have been 440 million years ago, when more than 60 per cent of ocean life died in a massive extinction event. We have no idea when another blast might hit — it could be any day. "Gamma ray bursts could give you a really bad day. You could sterilize a whole cubic parsec of a galaxy," says Adam Burrows, an astrophysicist at Princeton.

Supernova explosions can similarly whack us with radiation, but are easier to see coming. Right now we know all the supernova-capable stars in our vicinity, and none are close enough to cause full-scale disaster. "Stars like Betelgeuse are far enough away not to cause an extinction level event," says Adrian Melott, a physicist at the University of Kansas who thinks about such risks. "But they are closer than all historical supernova. We would get some ozone depletion. We would get some radiation. Maybe there might be mildly increased cancer risks."

If such things still all sound like science fiction, then don't forget about the much more common and likely event of solar storms. We have seen these happen in living memory. In March 1989, a blast of hot particles burped from the Sun whacked into the Earth's magnetic field and played havoc with electrical grids. The storm caused a power blackout in Quebec that left five million people without electricity for nine hours, and caused C$2 billion in damages. It could have been much, much worse. A solar storm 20 times larger than that hit in September 1859, but since the electrical fritz caused by such disturbances only affects technology (it doesn't fry brain cells, it just blitzes electrical circuits), no one noticed too much at the time — it shocked telegraph operators and burned down telephone exchanges, but not much else. If a storm of that size were to hit today's more technologically-dependent society, it would shut down GPS, ruining the systems relied on for financial transactions and creating economic havoc, and shutting down electrical grids widely enough and long enough to cause perhaps millions of deaths and, some have estimated, cost trillions of dollars. "We're estimating something like a one per cent chance by 2025, and considering that it's a huge disaster that's quite high," says Melott.

Our Sun goes through an 11-year cycle of activity in terms of solar flares and sunspots; this autumn is predicted to be the peak of the next cycle. That doesn't necessarily mean we'll get a big solar storm, but it does increase the chances. So while watching the glorious aurora predicted for this autumn, hold your breath and hope that the lights don't go out.

Rumbling from below

The most likely disaster in the Pacific Northwest is a megaquake — an earthquake on the scale of the one that hit Japan so devastatingly in 2011. A recent 13-year study of the quake zone running from Vancouver Island down to Northern California found evidence for 41 huge quakes bigger than magnitude 8.2 over the past 10,000 years, with one striking on average every 500 years. The last big quake at the northern end was in 1700, giving us a 10-15 per cent chance of another "big one" in the next 50 years. John Clague of Simon Fraser University notes that some people argue this last quake was the first in an expected cluster of three, which would up the odds of another big quake happening sooner rather than later. "One thing is for sure — there will be another one," says Clague, who is an expert in natural hazards.

In the Sea to Sky most buildings are wood-framed, which can bend and twist in a quake and resist most damage. But the highway is obviously susceptible to landslides, and we could easily be cut off from supplies. "It's conceivable that Whistler could be isolated, and who knows for how long," says Clague. It is also possible that the sandy floodplains of Pemberton could liquefy in a quake, he adds, causing buildings to sink or slump.

More disastrous on a planetary-wide scale would be the eruption of a "supervolcano" — one of a handful of volcanic sites on the planet capable of plunging us into a nuclear winter. The past 13.5 million years have seen no fewer than 19 such massive eruptions, each spewing more than 1,000 cubic kilometres of rock — enough to bury a continent in centimetres of ash and blacken the skies. One of the most recent, in Toba, Indonesia, 74,000 years ago, is thought to have spurred an ice age as the black skies kept out sunlight. We expect eruptions like this once every 100,000 years or so; the chances of such an eruption happening in the next few hundred years is less than one per cent — but not impossible.

Perhaps the most famous supervolcano lies underneath Yellowstone national park. The heat driving all those hot springs and geysers comes from a giant volcano that has erupted many times, most recently 640,000 years ago. Those blasts left behind a shallow crater more than 50 kilometres wide — so big you don't notice it from the ground, but it can be seen by satellite. Researchers have mapped the molten magma lying below Yellowstone and the three other youngest, most active supervolcanic sites: Campi Flegrei in Naples, Italy; Toba in Sumatra; and Taopo in New Zealand. All of these volcanic sites occasionally experience swarms of small earthquakes and swelling of the ground (the ground can rise metres over a few years), both of which mean that something — magma or steam — is moving down below. Yet despite all the tools that can reveal the magma pool below and interpret the rumblings, scientists can't really tell whether these warning signs are going to lead to a tiny eruption or a giant one. "We don't have reliable models to assess the likelihood of an eruption," says Jake Lowenstern, the scientist in charge of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory. "We'd have a few months of extreme unrest before an eruption, but it's not clear that we'd know exactly what was in store."

While Vancouver is out of the reach of the predicted ashfall from a full-scale Yellowstone eruption, we wouldn't be safe. Nowhere would be. The ash could cool the planet by several degrees, freezing up food sources and causing mass starvation.

INfection

If we escape death by planetary bombardment, we still have biology to contend with. Humanity has seen the impact of natural biological weapons before. From 1918 to 1920, a pandemic flu wiped out 35-100 million people — about 2.5 per cent of those who caught it, and up to 5.5 per cent of the world's population. That's about twice the number of casualties from the First World War. Some died within 24 hours of catching the bug, bleeding from their ears. And it's not just flu that has caused havoc. The Irish potato famine of 1845-1852 was caused by a fungal blight, made worse by human interference, that killed about a million people through starvation. Both scenarios could happen again.

No one has put a number on the likelihood of another flu pandemic, but we have seen enough close calls to know just how easily it might happen. Starting in 2003, the so-called "bird flu" killed at least 330 people — not too many overall, but a frightening 60 per cent of those who came down with it. It was extremely deadly, but not hugely contagious. That put people on guard, sending officials to panic stations when "swine flu" struck in 2009. That killed more than 150,000 people — but just 0.02 per cent of those it infected. It was very contagious, but like the normal seasonal flu, it wasn't particularly deadly. This week, Chinese scientists confirmed for the first time that a new strain of bird flu that has killed 23 people in China has been transmitted to humans from chickens. So far there is no human-to-human transmission of this latest flu dubbed H7N9, which has infected 109 people in China since it was first detected in March.

Now we're waiting for something that combines both evils, spreading and killing fast and furiously. Controversial research in the lab has shown that just five genetic tweaks to the bird flu virus can give it the ability to spread through the air between mammals (the tests were done with ferrets, but the results are expected to hold true for people too), which would make it a super-contagious super-killer.

Flu isn't the only potential pandemic virus. The Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) coronavirus that hit in 2002/2003 killed 775 people; a new version in Saudi Arabia has this year struck 13 people, killing seven — world health officials are keeping a close eye on it.

These viral outbreaks start in livestock, where viruses meet and combine to form new, deadlier mutant varieties that can jump the species barrier into people. The 1918 flu was also a "bird flu" in this sense. Because pandemics tend to start where animals are packed in tight and live close to people, experts expect the next one to arise in Southeast Asia. But in today's mobile society, it would spread quickly from there. Danger zones after that would include hubs of tourist activity — like Whistler. "Whistler, as a world-class tourist destination, gets a lot of tourists who might not be as well immunized as we are, and provides a portal for new viruses to enter the population," says Dr. Paul Martiquet with Vancouver Coastal Health. A batch of non-immunized international workers caused a mumps outbreak three years ago, for example, he says. On top of that, the tendency for ski bums to live literally on top of each other in cramped housing ups the odds of disease transmission — and not just sexually transmitted ones.

If illness doesn't get you directly, it could mount a sneak attack by targeting crops. Fungal outbreaks don't get a lot of press, but they are extremely deadly in the plant world — as every potato farmer in Pemberton knows. Over history, fungi have caused more than 70 per cent of all regional or global species extinctions recorded — far more than bacteria or viruses. Potato blight is still alive and kicking: a more aggressive strain than the 1800s version, called 13_A2, is now running rampant in Europe and North Africa. Other major staple crops face similar threats: rice blast, corn smut, soybean rust, and stem rust for wheat. For the latter, superstrain Ug99 has slashed yields in African countries in some recent years by up to 80 per cent. If serious fungal outbreaks were to hit all five crops at the same time, it would leave enough food for just a third of the world's population. "Fungal diseases have an enormous potential to destroy economic powerhouses such as the U.S., with their over-dependence on a few crops. The devastating rust fungus, UG99 will likely do this soon," says David Hughes, who studies the effects of fungi at Penn State.

There are thought to be between 1.5 and five million different species of fungi in the world, of which only 100,000 have been identified. Some of them are pretty weird, including one fungi that famously turns infected ants into zombies that are compelled to cling to the undersides of leaves as they die — the perfect place for the fungi to reproduce. Fungi aren't expected to turn people into zombies. But they have had serious impacts on animal populations. A fungi that causes "white-nose syndrome" in bats has wiped out about six million bats in North America, with up to 95 per cent fatality rates. A fungi is thought to be responsible for the collapse of bee colonies around the world, acting together with a virus to muck with bee brains. A fungi discovered in the 1990s is wiping out swaths of amphibians around the world. And fungi have even been blamed in part for the demise of the dinosaurs. In people, fungi cause serious conditions like meningitis, and new infections continue to threaten. In the early 2000s, a tropical fungus evolved to thrive in the forests of the Pacific Northwest, including Vancouver Island. Spores from these "killer trees" have caused dozens of deaths, and frightened health officials by showing how new, deadly fungal diseases can evolve.

Survival of the fittest

What, you might wonder, can you do about all this, other than crossing your fingers and hoping for the best? While the worst-case-scenario might mean the end of human life on Earth, the chance of a less-than-apocalyptic event is much greater. A solar storm might knock out power grids for a week instead of months. Or a far-off gamma ray burst might put just enough of a dent in global crop yields to make food prices jump five or ten times.

All that means that having a home-grown way of keeping warm and fed is a sensible precaution. While so-called "preppers" — people who are preparing for the end of the world by stocking up on ammo, building underground bunkers in their backyard and practicing holing up in the dark for fun on weekends — tend to be the butt of jokes, preparations that don't become obsessive or eat up your life savings aren't a bad idea. The BC Sustainable Outdoor Survivalists (SOS) meetup group aims to help people be self-sufficient, not just in case of a natural disaster of any scale, but also in case you lose your job and can't afford food, get stranded in the wilderness for an unexpected weekend out, or just want to live off-grid for environmental reasons. That means they organize classes in everything from bush craft to self defence. Some recommend having an 18-month supply of food stored in a cool dark place, which you can constantly rotate through your kitchen and replenish. This also means you really get to take advantage of the cost savings from bulk buys at big-box stores.

A few disaster-preparedness groups have discovered that the best way to get people to actually think about survival isn't to bombard them with serious and scary statistics, but instead to make them laugh. The US Centers for Disease Control — an extremely serious federal body responsible for everything from pandemic flu controls to HIV education — makes it part of their mission to prepare people for — you guessed it — a zombie pandemic. "If you are generally well equipped to deal with a zombie apocalypse you will be prepared for a hurricane, pandemic, earthquake, or terrorist attack," deadpans their director, Ali Khan.

So are we well equipped? Whistler has a part-time Emergency Program Coordinator thinking about such things. Our local emergency plan notes that some supplies would likely run out fast: during the 2008 Porteau Cove rockslide that closed Highway 99 to the south, the gasoline tank at the Husky Station was drained in less than three hours, and the supermarkets in Whistler have enough food for a week at most.

"Here in whistler we should be prepared to survive for seven days," says Whistler's mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden.

The good news is that more than half of Whistler's population falls in the "young adult" range, who are better equipped to hunt, farm or fish than the elderly or the very young, and many have bushcraft skills to help them survive in the wilderness. All that will come in handy if and when food runs out.

"Given the outdoors nature and interest of our population, I think people would be quite self-sufficient," agrees Wilhelm-Morden.

So for this year's disaster preparedness week, instead of just buying a first aid kit and some bottled water, you might consider beefing up your hunting and fishing skills, making friends with some Pemberton potato farmers, and stocking up for the long haul.

3 tips to survival

Know the risks

Although the consequences of emergencies and disasters can be similar, knowing the specific risks to you, your family or your business can help everyone be better prepared.

Interface fire, earthquake and flood are the top-three ranked hazards in Whistler. Although infrequent, these hazards pose the most potential risk to the community. More frequently occurring hazards in Whistler include severe weather, power outages, structure fires, vehicle accidents and landslides. The consequences of emergencies can be similar, leaving residents without lodging, food or the basic necessities.

Make a plan

Each individual, household and business needs an emergency plan. It will help everyone know what to do if disaster strikes.

In emergency situations, local phone service may be limited so confirm and include an out-of-area telephone contact where family and staff members can check in with if you are separated and unable to communicate locally. Keep the plan current by practicing and updating it during Emergency Preparedness Week each year. To view a short video on making a family emergency plan visit www.getprepared.gc.ca/cnt/rsrcs/vds/mkng-pln-eng.aspx

Get a kit

During an emergency, plan to get by without access to electricity or drinking water. Every one should have on hand basic supplies such as: a three-day supply of water, non-perishable food, prescriptions and personal hygiene items.

Additional items include an extra set of keys, a small amount of cash, copies of important documents, a headlamp, extra batteries and spare bulbs, a battery-operated or hand-crank radio, and a first aid kit specific to your needs. In addition to an emergency supply kit at home, you should also have one in your vehicle and at school or work.

Be prepared to be self-sufficient for at least 72 hours in an emergency. For more information on emergency kits visit www.getprepared.gc.ca/cnt/kts/index-eng.aspx

72-hour Survival Kit

Head lamp + battery-operated radio

3-day supply of water and non-perishable food items

Cash & spare keys

First-aid kit including prescription medication

For additional Info:

www.getprepared.gc.ca

• www.whistler.ca/residents/emergency-protective-services/whistler-emergency-program

• www.whistler.ca/sites/default/files/related/rmow_hazards_risk_vulnerability_assessment_june2012.pdf




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