'Giggle factor' is no laughing matter to scientists
Posted 3/11/2003 8:53 PM

By Eric J. Lyman, Special for USA TODAY

FRASCATI, Italy -- The first step in confronting the risks of an asteroid
striking the Earth is to get people to listen with a straight face, experts say.

Changing that was one of the goals of a meeting recently between
government leaders and scientists on asteroid-related risks.

"It's true: The biggest barrier we have is overcoming what we call the
'giggle factor,' " says Stefan Michalowski of the Organization for Economic
Cooperation and Development, which co- sponsored the talks.

"To many people, this doesn't seem like a real threat. But we are trying to
describe the threat accurately and stress that this is something to be taken
seriously," he says.

The meeting, which was co-sponsored by the European Space Agency,
will yield a multilateral report next month.

The gist of the report? That the chance an asteroid will hit Earth and cause
catastrophe one day is small but significant, and that governments should
take the risk seriously, assess the vulnerability and act to reduce the danger.

"We know some things beyond any doubt, and one of them is that the odds that an asteroid will one day hit the Earth are 1-in-1: It's a
sure thing," said Marcello Coradini, head of the European agency's solar system exploration unit. Officials said that over a long period
of time, the threat of asteroid impact is the same as the cumulative risk from other natural disasters, such as earthquakes, tornadoes
or typhoons.

Coradini estimates that an asteroid a few hundred yards across could create a tidal wave big enough to wash more than half a mile
inland on both sides of the Atlantic if it landed between Europe and North America. If it landed in a city, it could cause more immediate
damage than an atomic bomb. Even an impact in the countryside would send enough dust into the atmosphere to make agriculture
impossible even thousands of miles away.

Such impacts are not unheard of. In 1908 an asteroid perhaps a mile wide exploded in Siberia. There is evidence of large asteroid  
impacts in other regions dating back to prehistoric times.

When released, the final report will recommend that nations:

  • Examine the threat their coastlines would face from an asteroid-related tidal wave.

  • Develop evacuation plans.

  • Contribute to initiatives designed to monitor and detect potential asteroid risks.

"What we recommend is like an insurance policy," Michalowski said. "It is something you hope you never need. But if you do need it,
you are glad you have it."
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This article originally appeared in
A doomsday asteroid is no laughing matter.