Medium-Size Asteroid Hit Could Unleash Ice Age

It would be cold, it would be dry, it would be unpleasant.

A strike by a medium-size asteroid could change Earth's climate dramatically for a few years, making life difficult for people around the world, a new study suggests.

Such an impact on land (as opposed to at sea) could cause average global temperatures to plunge to ice age levels and lead to steep drops in precipitation and plant productivity, among other effects, researchers said.

"These would not be pleasant times," Charles Bardeen, of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, said in December during a presentation at the annual fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in San Francisco. [Potentially Dangerous Asteroids (Images)]

Photos: Asteroids and Near-Earth Objects

Short-term climate change

Bardeen and his colleagues modeled what would happen to Earth's climate if a 0.6-mile-wide (1 kilometer) space rock plowed into one of the planet's landmasses. Such an impact would probably gouge out a crater about 9 miles (15 km) wide, throw huge amounts of dust into the atmosphere and trigger large-scale fires that lofted lots of soot into the air, provided the strike didn't occur in a desert area with little vegetation, Bardeen said.

The material lofted after this hypothetical asteroid strike would stay in the atmosphere for a long time - about six years in the case of dust and 10 years for soot, according to the researchers' results for the "worst-case scenario" (which assumed widespread fires).

These particles would warm in the sun, heating the stratosphere significantly and speeding up chemical reactions that destroy ozone, which protects Earth from harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Indeed, atmospheric ozone would be temporarily reduced by 55 percent, causing the surface UV index to top 20 in the tropics for several years. (According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a UV index of 11 or above denotes "extreme risk of harm from unprotected sun exposure.")

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The atmospheric soot and dust would also reduce the amount of sunlight hitting Earth's surface by up to 70 percent for the first year or two, Bardeen said. As a result, average global surface temperatures would cool by 14.5 degrees Fahrenheit (8 degrees Celsius), "which is about the equivalent of the ice ages," Bardeen said during his AGU presentation.

The bulk of this temperature drop would occur on land, he added. But effects would be felt in the oceans as well; sea-ice cover would increase, and water has a high thermal inertia, so changes in ocean temperature would last for a relatively long time. For example, the team's models suggest that the top layers of the ocean would still be about 0.9 degrees F (0.5 degrees C) cooler than normal 15 years after the asteroid impact.

The global cooling would also lead to a drop in precipitation of about 50 percent around the world, Bardeen said.

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"This is due to the lost heating and the lost temperature, so we lose convection; we don't have as many fronts," he said.

The decrease in sunlight, rain and snow would lead to a roughly 50 percent drop in plant productivity - not good news for farmers and the people who depend on them (which is to say, everyone in the world). Crops in North America, Europe and northern Asia would be especially hard-hit, while agricultural lands in India, South America and Africa would not be affected as much, Bardeen said.

So, the overall picture is not pretty. A strike by a 0.6-mile-wide asteroid could cause "a very severe global impact" for several years, Bardeen said.

But a space rock would likely have to be about 10 times bigger to cause a mass extinction, he added. (The asteroid that's thought to have wiped out the dinosaurs, along with many other species, 65 million years ago was probably about 6 miles, or 10 km, wide.) [Wipe Out: History's Most Mysterious Extinctions]

Photos: Psychedelic Landscapes of Asteroid Vesta

Ocean impact?

Bardeen and his team modeled the aftermath of an asteroid strike on land. But it's more likely that a space rock would come down in water, since oceans cover about 70 percent of Earth's surface. What would happen then?

A 2010 modeling study by the late Elisabetta Pierazzo and her colleagues looked into this scenario, and determined that the effects on Earth's protective ozone layer would be dramatic.

An ocean strike by a 0.6-mile-wide asteroid, the team found, would loft enough salty water vapor to destroy huge quantities of ozone, causing the surface UV index to spike temporarily to 56. Such high radiation levels, which have never been experienced in human history, would probably force people to stay inside during the day, Pierazzo said when the study came out.

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But an ocean strike would not have the same climatic consequences as a land impact, Bardeen said.

"The temperature effects, the precipitation effects, the effects on plants - those would all really only come with the land impact," Bardeen said.

However, the chances of an asteroid strike with serious global consequences seem remote, at least in the near future.

To date, astronomers have spotted 879 near-Earth asteroids that are at least 0.6 miles wide, and none of them pose an immediate threat. Models suggest that these 879 represent more than 90 percent of the total population of such mountain-size space rocks in Earth's neighborhood, NASA officials have said.

If a dangerous asteroid does line Earth up in its cross hairs, humanity doesn't have to sit idly by, just waiting for the end to come. If the space rock is detected with enough lead time - ideally, a decade or more before a potential impact - it could conceivably be steered off course using one or more "kinetic impactor" spacecraft that would slam into the space rock, and perhaps a fly-along "gravity tractor" probe as well, which would further nudge the asteroid slowly over long periods of time.

Destroying or disrupting the incoming object with a nuclear bomb is also an option, researchers say, especially if the threatening rock is extremely large and/or was first spotted shortly before its encounter with Earth.

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Doomsday Asteroids?

Asteroids and comets capture the human imagination unlike any other objects in space. They're speedy, craggy, not too far away -- and dangerous. Geologic investigations around the globe guarantee a sizeable space rock is bound to kiss our fragile blue marble within the next few centuries years. And if one may have wiped out the dinosaurs, the thinking goes, why not us? Browse through 10 of our favorite ominous objects that astronomers have plucked from the foreboding skies.


Asteroid 951, also known as Gaspra, is safely tucked away within the Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter. For now. This image is the outcome of the very first robotic rendezvous with an asteroid. The Galileo spacecraft swung by Gaspra at about 1,000 miles away in November 1991 on its way to Jupiter. The intel Galileo brought back on the asteroid was breathtaking; Gaspra's irregular, tooth-like shape and lack of big craters suggest that it was born out of a recent (300 to 500 million-year-old) smashup in the Asteroid Belt.


What asteroid was the first known to have a mini-companion orbiting it? Asteroid 243, better known as Ida. The Galileo spacecraft also scouted out this 1,900-by-2,375 mile space rock during the long trip to Jupiter in August 1993. Ida spins around once about every 4 1/2 hours, and its little "moon" Dactyl is roughly 20 times smaller. Like asteroid Gaspra, Ida is oddly shaped -- yet unlike Gaspra, Ida has remained in one piece for much of the solar system's 4.5 billion year existence.


NASA's Galileo spacecraft was first to get up close and personal with an asteroid, but the Near-Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR) mission quickly stole all of the thunder. Designed specifically to study asteroids close to Earth, NEAR's main objective was to spy on 433 Eros. Second only to 1036 Ganymed, Eros is one of the largest asteroids drifting dangerously close to Earth. Measuring 21 by 7 by 7 miles, its size easily rivals the space rock thought to have wiped out the dinosaurs. This false-color image shows where the asteroid's surface is denser (red) and less dense (blue) compared to an average reading.


Itokawa (asteroid 25143) may look like a harmless, peanut-shaped pile of rubble -- but the writing is on the wall. In a few million years, it's probably going to wallop Earth. Hayabusa, Japan's asteroid-snooping spacecraft, was set to land on a smooth patch, scoop up a sample and return it to Earth. Although the plucky robot never did make contact, its payload -- set to arrive at Earth by June 2010 -- probably contains at least a few bits of dust and other material from Itokawa. If it returns safely, Hayabusa will be only the second spacecraft to bring back a sample of the solar system from beyond the moon.


No robot has come out to meet New Jersey-sized asteroid 216 Kleopatra. Rather, this series of images was put together by the expansive Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico in mid-2000. As for Kleopatra's dog bone shape? Likely the leftovers of a violent collision within the Asteroid Belt that stuck two similarly sized space rocks together.


When it comes to 253 Mathilde, it's a wonder there's any asteroid left at all. This pockmarked, porous wad of rock is denser on its surface than it is at its core -- a complete puzzle to scientists. The leading explanation? Constant pounding from impacts squashed Mathilde's surface into a compact layer of rock. Clockwise, from top left: Mathilde in true color; Mathilde's color enhanced; Mathilde in black and white, as seen by the NEAR spacecraft.

Tempel 1

Tempel 1 is a comet, not an asteroid, but in fact the difference between the two types of wayward objects is still poorly understood. What appear to be plain ol' asteroids sometimes erupt into comets as they swing by the sun and heat up, sporting beautiful ionic tails. To better understand the difference, NASA smashed a robot called Deep Impact (scientific pun intended) into this wily comet. The probe created some July 4th fireworks in 2005 by deliberately slamming into the 3.1-by-4.3 mile core, directly between the two dark-rimmed craters at far right. Talk about a hole-in-one.

1999 JM8

In a few centuries, this ominous-looking asteroid known as 1999 JM8 may impact the Earth, putting it on the "watch out!" list for humans. Astronomers used deep-space radar to create these snapshots of the asteroid in 1999 as it tumbled through space. Clockwise, from top left: July 28; Aug. 1; Aug. 2; Aug. 5.

Wild 2

Also known as comet 81P, Wild 2 used to have a near-perfect circular orbit for billions of years -- that is, however, until Jupiter pulled it into a more eccentric loop around the sun. NASA's Stardust spacecraft sampled bits of the comet's tail and was the first-ever mission to return a sample of material from beyond the moon safely to Earth. Shown here is the comet's 3.1-mile-wide nucleus as seen by Stardust on Jan. 2, 2004.


Asteroid Apophis is last on our list, and certainly not the best. It is, after all, named after the Egyptian god of "uncreation" for a reason. Known in scientific circles as both 2004 MN4 and 99942 Apophis, this 885-foot-long space rock used to have a fairly good chance of impacting the Earth within a quarter century. After making a breathtakingly close pass on Friday the 13th in April 2029 -- less than 10 percent of the distance between Earth and the moon -- Apophis was thought to have a 1 in 45,000 chance of hitting Earth in 2036 when it swings back around. However, recent calculations have reduced this risk to a 1 in 250,000 chance. Phew! Despite Apophis' diminished threat to Earth, some scientists advocate sending a transmitter to the asteroid's surface to better track its movement. And now, Russia wants to send a deflection mission there, 'just in case' the calculations wrong.

Slide show presentation originally compiled by Dave Mosher.