I don’t know if you’ve watched the news, or been on Twitter, or tried to talk to your uncle about literally anything lately, but the world is a rancid pile of terrible right now. But don’t worry, because I’m here to remind you that if it wasn’t for a ridiculously slim margin of blind luck, things could always be much, much worse. Think about how …
The sun, being a roiling ball of burning space gas, isn’t exactly the most stable of extraterrestrial objects, and is prone to the occasional absolutely-not-alarmingly-named solar superstorm. These storms — or coronal mass ejections, if you prefer boring words for things — are essentially massive electromagnetic pulses that explode out of the sun during periods of high activity. In 2012, one nearly crippled Earth’s infrastructure.
In fact, had the storm happened a week earlier, we’d have all been royally fucked. Thankfully, though, due to orbits and whatnot, it was aimed juuust enough away from the Earth to not hit us bad — although a NASA satellite did get smacked pretty hard. The only reason it survived was that it was in deep space, away from our magnetosphere.
That’s actually the problem: Solar superstorms don’t play nice with a planet’s ambient magnetic fields. Had it directly impacted, it would have created strong electromagnetic fluctuations around Earth, and basically everything electronic would have gone away — power grids, the GPS guiding airplanes, credit card readers, even your indoor plumbing (most urban water supplies rely on electric pumps to keep your shits moving).
Estimates state that the damage would have been close to $3 trillion, with a recovery time of up to ten years, with many pointing to the 1859 Carrington Event, a real-life worst-case scenario, as an example. Even in those nascent days of electricity, a direct hit from a solar storm was crippling. Telegraph machines, rapidly becoming the primary method of communication at the time, burst into flames across the country, burning the hands of operators and halting the messaging system for days.
On the plus side, though, people as far south as Cuba were said to have been able to read newspapers by the light of the aurora borealis it created, so at least we’d have that going for us.
If you’re looking for a place to shoot a dystopian sci-fi action movie, just go to an oil refinery — you’ll barely have to change anything. They’re big and ugly and bad for the environment, and in what is most assuredly not a good thing, they seem like they’re on fire almost as much as they’re not.
Fires are so common, in fact, that the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board — the government agency responsible for investigating chemical accidents — can’t even be bothered to get out of bed unless someone dies. So when the Board does actually cite a facility for the terrible shit that almost happened, you can bet we’re talking about Roland Emmerich levels of death and destruction.
Case in point: the ExxonMobil refinery in Torrance, California, just south of Los Angeles. In 2015, the refinery caught fire, as per routine, but then, in a stunning turn of events that absolutely no one could have foreseen, it fucking exploded. A five-story processing unit up and went kaboom, starting more fires, raining chemical ash like snow for miles, and sending a 40-ton piece of machinery flying across the industrial plant. The detonation was so big that it actually registered as a small earthquake. Remarkably, only four people were injured. But hundreds of thousands almost died horribly.
You see, had that 40-ton piece of industrial equipment exploded in a slightly different direction — literally just a few feet to one side — a tank containing massive quantities of hydrofluoric acid would have also exploded, releasing a cloud of poison gas with the potential to severely ruin everyone in a four-mile radius. A four-mile radius that included a bunch of residential neighborhoods, full of innocent bystanders and children and puppies and, OK, statistically probably one or two people who deserved it.
While no one knows for sure exactly how bad it would have been. We do know that gaseous hydrofluoric acid is toxic as shit, and has been known to corrode bone, burn skin, and cause lasting lung damage, or just straight up murder you. And as anyone who’s ever been downwind of their roommate on chili night already knows, it’s not exactly easy to stop a gas from spreading. Hence the Chemical Safety Board brushing their teeth and struggling into a pair of pants to tell ExxonMobil to get their act together. Speaking of floating clouds of poison and neighborhoods full of innocents …
You might remember Japanese doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo as responsible for the sarin gas attacks in Tokyo in 1995, or how it was later discovered that they had a supervillain’s arsenal at their disposal. What seems to have slipped under the radar, though, was the fact that two years before, they straight up released aerosolized anthrax over a neighborhood in Tokyo, and got away with it.
In late June 1993, residents near Aum Shinrikyo’s headquarters — an utterly nondescript office building in an eastern area of Tokyo, and not, like, a giant skull-shaped island — complained to local authorities about foul odors coming from the building. A few days later, the stink was accompanied by loud banging and a weird mist coming from the roof, and then that afternoon, by a black “gelatin-like” ooze creeping down the side of the building. Finally, on July 2, after the misting and ooze had continued unabated for at least two days, authorities politely asked the doomsday cult to vacate the building so they could investigate.
The cult complied, but investigators didn’t get inside for another two weeks, at which point the building had been cleaned out, save for some black stains on the walls. The police took a few samples, but didn’t bother to actually test them. And so, with little more than a series of halfhearted shrugs, authorities promptly forgot about the entire thing.
Fast-forward to 1995, when that cult tried to murder an entire subway system’s worth of people. Someone involved in that investigation remembered the weird mist incident from earlier, and since they had a bunch of Aum Shinrikyo’s goons and scientist-goons in custody, they finally asked them what was up. Anthrax was what was up. Aum Shinrikyo had successfully anthraxed Tokyo.
The only reason this didn’t go down as a history-changing bioweapon attack is that the cult had accidentally released a strain of anthrax used for vaccines instead of a more murderous version. Reportedly, a few birds and pets died, but that apparently hadn’t raised enough flags. But, again, neither had a doomsday cult’s headquarters leaking black ooze, so what’re you gonna do?
As for how many could have died, that’s impossible to say. There were 7,000 people in the “high risk” zone, but who knows exactly how far a lethal strain would have spread. It would have come down to their spraying equipment, the viscosity of the compound, the weather/wind, and other factors we don’t know because this exact thing has never happened before. For instance, if the first release had immediately worked, how many additional attacks could they have gotten in before somebody finally arrested them? Authorities seemed to have these guys on a pretty long leash.
Earthquakes aren’t, by definition, great. And in the pantheon of bad quakes, the Sylmar-San Fernando earthquake of 1971 is right up there, killing 64 and causing upwards of $500 million in damage. And it was this close to being thousands of times worse.
Caught up in the quake was the Pacoima Dam, responsible for holding back the Van Norman Reservoir. For anyone who had more exciting childhood vacations than I did, dams are enormous concrete walls that stop enormous man-made lakes from drowning enormous cities. They are both marvels of engineering and monuments to man’s big-dicked hubris. To wit: In 12 measly seconds, the San Fernando earthquake managed to destroy the top 30 feet of the dam. For the more visual among you, you may recognize that as more than the height of a standard two-story home just up and crumbling away into nothing. And “nothing,” if I’m remembering my engineering correctly, is, like, the absolute shittiest way to try to stop a reservoir’s worth of water from going all Old Testament on a populace.
By a massive stroke of luck (and drought), though, the reservoir was only around half-full the day of the earthquake. The water level was 36 feet below the top of the dam. Meaning that by the time the world stopped shaking, only 6 feet — or a single Tom Hanks — of structurally compromised concrete stood between Los Angeles County and more than 3 1/2 billion gallons of water.
As it was, engineers evacuated close to 80,000 people for three days and began draining the reservoir almost immediately, fearing that an aftershock would set their worst-case scenario in motion. All of them probably greeted the rising sun with a smile, appreciating that they had been granted a new lease on life, feeling like every new day would be a precious gift. Then that feeling probably went away by Day 2.
The Tunguska Event was the name given to an asteroid impact in the Siberian tundra in 1908, an explosion so big it knocked a dude off his porch 40 miles away. The prevailing theory is that a 220-million-pound space rock, 120 feet across, came screaming through the Earth’s atmosphere and then went kablooey over the middle of nowhere in Russia. Hundreds of reindeer were murdered instantly, and 800 square miles of forest were decimated, with 80 million trees flattened in a radial pattern around the impact site. The ensuing fireball was said to have had the power of 185 atomic bombs. The Tunguska Event is still remembered as one of the most powerful explosions to ever happen to the planet.
And in 1883, we very nearly had whole bunch of them all at once.
Mexican astronomer Jose Bonilla, doing what astronomers do, was looking through his telescope in August 1883 when he saw approximately 450 fuzzy objects passing between Earth and the sun. Not entirely sure what it was, but assuming the phenomena was, like, something, Bonilla dutifully published his report in the French journal L’Astronomie, complete with old-timey photos. But because proper science hadn’t been invented yet, his contemporaries wrote the whole thing off, claiming that Bonilla had simply seen a flock of geese or forgotten to clean his telescope lens.
Fast-forward 130 years, and a different set of Mexican astronomers have finally figured out what Bonilla was looking at: the Earth’s narrowly avoided obliteration. They figured out that the “450 fuzzy objects” were in fact pieces of a broken comet, all passing within a few thousand kilometers of earth — an astronomical “hair’s breadth.” By their estimates, there were a total of over 3,000 objects skirting past our orbit, each one at least the size of the asteroid that blew up Russia.
If even a couple of them had been just a little bit closer, we’d have had a full-on extinction event on our hands. And our only reaction was to tell a guy to clean his filthy telescope.