Document Type

Article

Publication Date

1997

Center/Program

Sabin Center for Climate Change Law

Abstract

Asteroids1 and comets2 pose unique policy problems. They are the ultimate example of a low probability, high consequence event: no one in recorded human history is confirmed to have ever died from an asteroid or a comet, but the odds are that at some time in the next several centuries (and conceivably next year) an asteroid or a comet will cause mass localized destruction and that at some time in the coming half million years (and conceivably next year), an asteroid or a comet will kill several billion people. The sudden extinction of the dinosaurs, and most other species 65 million years ago, is now generally attributed to the impact of a 10-kilometer-wide comet or asteroid at Chicxulub in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula that left a 110-mile-wide crater.3 Even our own century has seen smaller-scale impacts. On June 30, 1908, hundreds of square miles of trees were burned and herds of reindeer may have been incinerated in the Tunguska region of Siberia by an explosion with the force of 1,000 Hiroshima bombs, apparently caused by a 60-meter asteroid.4 Airborne blasts in the kiloton to megaton range were observed in 1930 at the Curuca River in Brazil; in 1947 at Sikhote-Alin, Siberia; in 1965 over Revelstoke, Canada; and over Ontario in 1966 and Alaska in 1969.5 Most recently, on November 22, 1996, a meteorite crashed into a coffee field in Honduras, leaving a 165-footwide crater.6

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