The Torino Scale

by Ashely Adams


0

“The likelihood of a collision is zero, or is so low as to be effectively zero. Also applies to small objects such as meteors and bodies that burn up in the atmosphere as well as infrequent meteorite falls that rarely cause damage.’
 
The particles that will someday become you and the rock that kills you spill into each other. Carbon. Oxygen. Iron. Everything that will be exists in an inseparable cloud of star dust spread across a corner of the Milky Way. An upturned palm of leftover supergiant resting against the blanket of space.
 

1

“A routine discovery in which a pass near the Earth is predicted that poses no unusual level of danger. Current calculations show the chance of collision is extremely unlikely with no cause for public attention or public concern. New telescopic observations very likely will lead to re-assignment to Level 0.’
 
A distant star shatters; a shockwave passes through the cloud. Hydrogen tumbles together, condenses until it alights under its own weight. Sun arises from corpses and death rattles. The leftover gas begins to spin around the sun. Faster and faster matter collides and lumps together, creating the first proto-planets. The accretion disk glows ruby and gold. T-Tauri light and x-rays wash across molten surfaces, the first sunrise.
 
The pieces of you and the rock that will kill you drift apart. Your fragments head towards the sun, settling into a planetoid’s orbit in the inner reaches of the solar system, the one-day-Earth. You still have a long journey, but the rock has little else left to do for the next 4.6 billion years. Too small hold onto its heat, it fades into a celestial cinder. Jupiter prevents further coagulation for many of these lost stones. The rock can only dream of planethood as its iron heart freezes.
 

2

“A discovery, which may become routine with expanded searches, of an object making a somewhat close but not highly unusual pass near the Earth. While meriting attention by astronomers, there is no cause for public attention or public concern as an actual collision is very unlikely. New telescopic observations very likely will lead to re-assignment to Level 0.’
 
The Earth holds summits for countless world-enders. The planet stands arms out. Bring it all the comets, asteroids, unclassified solar system bodies. Comet-tail dust, ash from volcanic moons lost from atoms-thin atmosphere. The flecks of leftover creation crash against Earth’s still liquid crust, light against the vacuum never-ending.
 
4.5 billion years ago, the planet Theia, who has followed in Earth’s shadow, is knocked off course by a passing with Jupiter’s gravitational field.
 
The impact is not a violent explosion, a shattering of planets, leaving nothing but the afterglow of their shapes. Instead, Theia folds all its Mars-sized mass into Earth, sending pieces of Theia and Earth out into space. Spinning with the Earth, our Moon forms from this solar system in-miniature.
 
If there was any life on Earth at this time, it has been undoubtedly destroyed. But, perhaps, a few of the first bacteria linger in the moments after the impact. Cell walls boil along with the proto-ocean, thrown back and forth by the Earth made-liquid. This first life takes in the moonrise, lunar glow washing over simplistic photoreceptors before flickering out, leaving no trace they were ever here.
 

3

“A close encounter, meriting attention by astronomers. Current calculations give a 1% or greater chance of collision capable of localized destruction. Most likely, new telescopic observations will lead to re-assignment to Level 0. Attention by public and by public officials is merited if the encounter is less than a decade away.’
 
The moon drifts away, shielding Earth from other impacts, keeping its poles at a stable inclination. Chemicals–oxygen, carbon, phosphorous, sulfur–react in the tidal pull, forming double-chained polymers that will one day be all life. The lunar crucible is a necessary blood-letting. LUCA pours forth from Earth’s veins.
 
It’s a long time before anything close to you appears. It takes 3.8 billion years for life to string together cells. Another 260 million after that for the shifting of eyespots into cones, rods, corneas, and irises. Another 170 million for fin bones to shift into hands, albeit with eight, nine, ten fingers. Another 140 million years for the first animals soft with fur and milk to appear.
 
These soft animals crawl in the shadow of giant reptiles. Shadows clad in scales and pin feathers, armed with sickle-claws, horns, crests in all colors and shades that your ancestors can’t see because what use is color in burrows and log hollows?
 
Your ancestors wouldn’t exist without Theia and you wouldn’t exist without the asteroid that ends the Cretaceous.
 
A six-mile chunk of iron slams down near the Yucatán peninsula. 110 miles of Chicxulub crater carved out as easily as spoon through soup of liquefied bedrock, ocean water, and titanosaur. Mammals survive underground as global firestorm gives way to darkness, then disease and starvation. Your ancestors eat anything, plant or animal, dead or alive. All the colors of the rainbow taste the same nocturnal gray.
 
Somewhere between Mars and Jupiter two asteroids nudge each other. One flies off to join the thousands of Trojans locked in the Jovian system. The other, the rock that will kill you, is sent towards its encounter with Earth. The empty places in space stretch for millions of miles between asteroids. This event could almost be a miracle if it were anything less than the eventual end of humanity.
 

4

“A close encounter, meriting attention by astronomers. Current calculations give a 1% or greater chance of collision capable of regional devastation. Most likely, new telescopic observations will lead to re-assignment to Level 0. Attention by public and by public officials is merited if the encounter is less than a decade away.’
 
It takes only a handful of decades for the last dinosaur to fall after the Chicxulub impact, but millions of years for those soft, tender ancestors to fill the gaps in the world. Hands melt and dip into wings, flippers, hooves, claws that rip open anthills. Hair, necks, tails shrink and grow. It’s over 60 million years until something stands, grabs stone and makes it into fire, arrowheads, and streaks on cave walls in the shape of bulls. Finally, you have arrived.
 
You, who have survived all the universe could throw at you. More than survived, you’ve used your thumbs, your upright stance, your unending determination to tear apart strands of the food web, tie the chains of the ecosystem so that you’re at the head. Nothing like you has existed before. You churn soil, breed corn and oxen over and over until they barely resemble their wild counterparts, turn stone into walls, palaces, tombs. Like a newborn sun you take dust motes and mold them into something greater. Not even the dinosaurs with all their millions of years of dominance shape the world like you.
 
Still, your reign is full of unease. Perhaps it is the memory of your predecessors’ demise rooted in the parts of your brain barely post-reptilian. Perhaps you see some vision of your future destruction, but the sight of stone cutting through the night sky disrupts your hard-fought calm. In comet tails lurks the devil, an icy banner of conquest, or a piece of God’s will broken from heaven.
 
Some of you will turn away, call these stones vile stars, atmospheric disturbances, daughters of the devil. But some of you refuse to turn your eyes to the ground. Some of you point telescopes into the coma and give them names like Encke, Faye, Swift-Tuttle. You record each comets’ passing and find that it is not sin or divine retribution drawing them to Earth, but gravity shifting them across space in spider web parabolas.
 
In May of 1910 you step outside, your slippers growing damp as the pre-dawn dew soaks through the fabric. Halley’s Comet rises just before the sun, a thin scratch of white scored from the night sky. You pass the night surrounded by friends, cards smacking against a table while you mock the newspapers and the con-artists and those that believe in a world dead by deadly gas leaking from the comet’s tail. Yet, when you watch the comet take its place above Venus and the Moon, you find yourself thinking of the reported cyanogen, rags tucked into door and window frames, advertisements for “Hope’s Anti-Comet Pills’ full of smiling moons and streaking stars.
 

5

“A close encounter posing a serious, but still uncertain threat of regional devastation. Critical attention by astronomers is needed to determine conclusively whether or not a collision will occur. If the encounter is less than a decade away, governmental contingency planning may be warranted.’
 
On the morning of June 30th, 1908 in Siberia, there is not a cloud to be seen. Even at 7:16 a.m. the day looks to be hot and dry. Then, at 7:17 the sky is sliced in two, bisected by a line so bright that you are unable to look at it. The temperatures spikes hundreds of degrees like a piece of sun fallen to Earth. The heat climbs into your body, so close to the flesh that you try to tear off your clothes to escape it. Before you can do that, there is a sound like the Ural Mountains crashing against each other. Wind knocks you off your feet, smashes the windows of your trading post, bends iron hinges of doors. You are sure it is the end of the world.
 
You have borne witness to the Tunguska event, the mid-air explosion of a comet fragment. This event becomes the largest impact in recorded human history. It blows up with the force of a 5.0 Richter scale earthquake. In Great Britain, needles on barometers wobble as the atmosphere stitches itself back together. Stars wink in and out for months in the wake of its dust trail. All over Eurasia, the night skies are wreathed by noctilucent clouds, filaments of atmospheric ice that glow even after the sun has long since disappeared. There are no human causalities from the event, but the damage to the taiga lingers for decades. 80 million trees fall over 800 miles in the pattern of butterfly wings.
 
One hundred and five years later, another Russian morning is disturbed by a fireball. This time, you squint through your windshield as the second sunrise plays out through your dashcam. You film the vapor trail with your phone with a forced grin until the shockwave pushes you to your knees. You become one of a thousand sent to a hospital as glass sprays into eyes, doors knock bodies asunder. This time, everyone hears the second end of the world over Chelyabinsk.
 

6

“A close encounter by a large object posing a serious but still uncertain threat of a global catastrophe. Critical attention by astronomers is needed to determine conclusively whether or not a collision will occur. If the encounter is less than three decades away, governmental contingency planning may be warranted.’
 
In 1994, all telescopes are pointed toward Jupiter. The doomed comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 is on a course to collide with the largest planet. In The Denver Post, The New York Times, China’s Reference News a Hubble-supplied infrared photo is splashed onto newsprint. You see this image in the “World News’ section of your newspaper. A comet ripped into pieces by Jupiter’s gravity, length of pearls against glowing black, wedged between Baltic conflicts and baseball player strikes.
 
You stay up all night at an observatory in Texas, watching light burst from the edge of Jupiter’s atmosphere. It takes a week for all the fragments, A through W, to hit the planet.
 
The impacts leave a trail of black eyes and bruises over the surface, clouds charred brown by ammonia and hydrogen sulfide. With nothing solid to stop their expansion, these marks swell to the size of Earth before being absorbed by the winds months later.
 
You watch Shoemaker-Levy 9’s demise with glee, but perhaps, with a hint of dread. It’s one thing to see the crater fossils from the ancient past or dead trees in the wilds of Siberia. Now, your own eyes have watched the fire plumes and scarring. If it can happen to Jupiter, and it’s already happened to Earth, what’s stopping the next Shomewaker-Levy 9 from hitting you?
 
The Torino Impact Hazard scale is invented in 1999 by a team of astronomer. It’s named after the city it was created in, Turin, Italy, to recognize the spirit of cooperation, the unification brought by the fear of extinction. It serves as a quick and simplified guide to impact odds and hazards. Zero to ten, a no-chance odds, background dust event to certain extinction. The highest any object reaches on the Torino scale is a four, an honor held by 99942 Apophis. Named for a reoccurring villain in the Stargate SG-1 series, the thousand-foot asteroid is given a 2.7 percent chance of hitting Earth in 2029. Small, but with a death toll of at least 10 million hanging in the balance if it comes down in a relatively populated area, further observations are quickly done. Soon, Apophis is pushed back down to zero. A lumpy piece of Stargate will not end you.
 
These brushes with annihilation do raise concerns, but what can you do? There’s no quick solution to stop these objects. Propulsion methods to push the oncoming asteroid or comet away are theoretical promises at best; detonation through warhead only makes it worse, creating a barrage instead of one hit. You have so many other concerns in the world–malaria, rising debt, melting sea ice. Things more certain 2.7 percents and fours on equations and scales made by underfunded scientists.
 

7

“A very close encounter by a large object, which if occurring this century, poses an unprecedented but still uncertain threat of a global catastrophe. For such a threat in this century, international contingency planning is warranted, especially to determine urgently and conclusively whether or not a collision will occur.’
 
Enter the rock.
 
It emerges from the endlessness of space just when you know the full repercussions of its encounter with Earth, but have no way to stop it.
 
At first, there are assurances. There has been a mistake. Like Apophis, the rock will slide past Earth, nothing more than a moving target for backyard astronomers and their Dobsonian telescopes made of birch and housed in shed-style “observatories’. Or maybe it is too small to really cause harm. Even a Tuguska-sized rock is survivable given enough time to prepare.
 
You tell the public not to panic, that a little more observation and number crunching will show there is nothing to fear. You marathon all the B-disaster movies, asteroid-related or otherwise, and get drunk to honor the rock. You stock up on canned goods–green beans, tuna, peaches.
 
A little more time, then a little more. Finally, you are forced to admit the truth. The rock, at the same mass as the one that killed the dinosaurs, will hit in a few months.
 
Some of the dinosaurs had the sense to shrink down, grow a set of wings and fly away from the destruction. You however, have only grown softer, wider. There will be no hole you can hide in, no carcasses to supply you. You can only watch and wait.
 

8

“A collision is certain, capable of causing localized destruction for an impact over land or possibly a tsunami if close offshore. Such events occur on average between once per 50 years and once per several 1000 years.’
 
If you knew the world was ending, what would you do? In the weeks that follow, you will grapple with this cliche, the only thing directing you.
 
You will take to the streets, sign raised in the air crying “Repent’, as if the paper could hold back the oncoming Armageddon. You knew better than anyone that God’s fury was coming. Jesus returns on a steed of rare metal and vapors.
 
In another city, police will have given up trying to stop you, deciding to spend their last days with their families. You will set everything you can on fire. You will smash windows, pull down signs with hands or tows attached to stolen cars. You’ll have heard you’re close enough to the impact site that you’ll be vaporized before you can even comprehend it. You’ll want to see the beauty of the end, even if it has to come by your own hands.
 
You will hold your children. You will mourn for yourself some, more for them. You will tell your children that you will take them to the countryside where your relatives live, hide out in bunkers and eat jarred turnips until it is over. They won’t tell you they know it won’t do any good, though you’re pretty sure they know. You will watch Aladdin for six days straight and try to tell yourself that at least your children won’t have time to make regrets.
 
You will look down at your hands. Your hands, survivor of hundreds of millions years of warfare, drought, flood, and disease. Your hands, which clutched the continents so tight they could never shake you free even as they moved all their mass beneath you. Your hands, which you will clench as you wonder what was the point?
 

9

“A collision is certain, capable of causing global climatic catastrophe that may threaten the future of civilization as we know it, whether impacting land or ocean. Such events occur on average once per 100,000 years, or less often.’
 
The rock kills you is such a small thing, really. At less than ten miles wide, it is negligible compared to the size of Earth. Less than the length of most cities. Yet, when it hits the atmosphere, screaming down at eighteen miles-per-second, it releases energy a billion times the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima. It will come down off the coast of North Carolina.
 
You will be lucky within one hundred miles of the impact. You will be simply gone. No pain, no lingering misery. Just vaporization and a hole where you once where.
 
All the charming colonial-era buildings of Annapolis will be blasted into rubble, ripped from their foundations as carelessly as a child pulls grass. Cars in Southern Florida will be thrown, twisted into melted sheets of plastic and steel. In Macon, Georgia you will be crushed in from the inside-out as you fall from your bed, all the empty spaces in your body collapsing under the pressure of the shockwave.
 
In Windsor, Canada, your favorite sweater, black with alternating bands of red and white, will burn, as the Earth shakes under your feet with the greatest earthquake in recorded history. Tsunamis will rip across Venezuela, a hundred feet tall, dashing you against walls uprooted by the wave of water. If you manage to escape the waves, you are buried under the weight of the misplaced Carolina coastline.
 
But it will be you on the opposite side of the world, you who never saw the rock break sky and earth who will suffer the most. Dust will be thrown over the world, hiding the sunlight under a shroud of dirt so thick and black that it will coat your teeth and lungs with every inhale. Plants will quickly die and the whole food chain will collapse without its base. The rock will kill you not with heat or pressure but with starvation in the longest winter.
 

10

“A collision is certain, capable of causing global climatic catastrophe that may threaten the future of civilization as we know it, whether impacting land or ocean. Such events occur on average once per 100,000 years, or less often.’
 
You and the rock that killed you spill into each other. Sculptures. Tanks. Feet. Curiosity. Sickles. Printers. Determination. Everything that you made exists in an inseparable cloud. After 4.6 billion years of separation, you return to the primordial dust, a lazy streak in the cradle of the solar system.