Disease! Catastrophe! Climate change! Villains! Doomsday scenarios that might get us in the end
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We’re probably doomed.
Runaway climate instability, nuclear “accidents,” terrorism, biologically engineered plague viruses, corporately sponsored famine, the end of bees, nanobots consuming the planet, and our old favorite, war of all kinds — the list of ways we have screwed our planet is just about endless. And the planet itself isn’t idle; Mother Nature is busy inventing new and clever ways to send us all back to the Stone Age, or beyond: earthquakes, super volcanoes, solar explosions, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, meteors, the list goes on and on.
And our friends in Hollywood are looking for other possibilities: the return of ravenous giant lizards, planet-grabbing apes and of course, lots and lots of hungry zombies.
Some of these possibilities look like long shots, but something will surely be the end of us, in some gruesome way. We at CityLife want to do our part to inform, educate and panic us all with a survey of all the ways we could be doomed.
SCENARIO: ZOMBIE ATTACK
Zombie virus infects the recently dead, who desire nothing but to nom-nom on the bodies (particularly the tasty brain parts) of the living, thereby spreading the infection globally. This could certainly impact Las Vegas’ critical tourism sector, which would have to completely retool and restock the buffets that make our destination so desirable. According to Kimmy Hale, zombie killer and manager at Las Vegas’ Zombie Apocalypse survival store, a global zombie pandemic would land Las Vegas “in absolute dire straits. It would be terrible.”
Ways to Prepare: Carefully review a Walking Dead marathon on AMC, enjoy the latest Brad Pitt popcorn movie, stock up on weapons, medical supplies and food.
Likelihood: Although the biology of zombies still seems a bit sketchy to the staff at CityLife, we’re the first to admit that we are not scientists. According to Hale, the probability of a zombie attack is “very high.” Hale believes one source for a zombie epidemic could be government bio-weapons research. Once unleashed, a virus would inevitably wind up here. “Las Vegas — it’s the melting pot for the whole planet. All it takes is one infected passenger on an airplane.”
SCENARIO: GLOBAL PANDEMIC
There’s no question that there will be pandemics. Pathogens are busy trading their DNA in the evolutionary effort to make a virus or bacterium that will inhabit our bodies, using our cells and tissue as industrial laboratories to make more bugs. If these bugs also make us very sick, or even kill us, that is not the primary purpose of the pathogen; it’s just a side effect of making baby bugs.
Viruses these days have a lot of advantages that their ancestors did not. For one thing, some new strain of ebola, for example, can hitch a ride on an airline out of Kinshasa on Monday morning and be in Manhattan by the afternoon. The last really nasty pandemic was the Spanish flu, from 1918-1920, which infected a half-billion people and killed 50 million to 100 million. In the United States, public events were banned, movie theaters were closed, people stayed home and panicked.
A similar event would not be good for Las Vegas’ tourism and gaming industry, which pretty much depends on putting a high volume of people into enclosed spaces of various sizes and shapes.
Nancy Williams, an epidemiologist with the Southern Nevada Health District, says professionals from all over the world are on the lookout for the next deadly bug. If one comes, “Las Vegas could be affected as much as anywhere else,” she says. “We have a lot of transient people here.”
However, it is not all bad news. Global, national and local health systems are in place and ready to identify, contain, treat and vaccinate for emerging pathogens. She believes that the agencies are more prepared now than ever before to respond to a threat. But the scary Matt Damon movie from a couple of years ago, Contagion? That was a pretty accurate representation of the spread and response to a serious airborne virus with a high mortality rate, Williams says.
Ways to prepare: Williams says that people need to be prepared to “shelter in place” for periods of days or weeks. Preparation should help people not just seeking to avoid a plague, but for other emergencies as well. Water, food, essential medications, batteries, first aid supplies. There may come a time when the government cannot immediately come to your rescue.
Likelihood: It will happen. There will be new viruses that will sicken and even kill segments of the world and Nevada populations. How serious will it be? Williams is confident that agencies can respond before we have to close the casinos. But be ready for something a bit more serious, she advises.
SCENARIO: CLIMATE CHANGE HEATS UP THE DESERT SOUTHWEST
As we write this, it is the fourth day in a row that temperatures are expected to go above 115 degrees in Las Vegas. Already, the summer can be gruesome. What happens if the variability of the climate, further shaken by humans dumping millions of tons of powerful greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, lifts the temperatures by, say, 10 degrees or more? Instead of temperatures nearing 120, we’d be looking at Death Valley-like extremes of 130 degrees or more.
A rise in temperature is highly likely to occur, but slowly, says Thomas Piechota, climate change expert at UNLV.
“It’s a gradual thing, it’s not an abrupt thing,” he says.
In 20 years, we might see a change of zero to 3 degrees. In 50 years, 2-5 degrees. In 70 years, 3-10 degrees. Piechota notes that the estimate is based on a model, and the model is based on various speculation. How we react to climate change as a society matters a great deal, as well.
“I think that a whole lot of people would have to act here like they do already in the Far North,” says Jane Feldman, a pesky environmentalist with the Sierra Club. She’s been working on both conservation and energy programs for the group for years, and she’s worried by what she sees in terms of climate impacts already happening.
“I expect that a lot of trees and other vegetation would not survive,” she says. It would be the end of landscaping as we know it. The places that we love to visit in the nearby mountains, Red Rock Canyon, Mount Charleston and the Spring Mountains, “all of those places would be affected. … We’re going to be a place that’s hotter and drier. Whatever is flammable out there is going to be burning.
“If it’s that incredibly hot outside, we’re not going to find comfort. We’re going to be burnt to a crisp, but slowly, the way they cook lobster.”
Ways to prepare: It might already be too late to put the brakes on global warming, but Feldman remains optimistic that switching to alternative energy sources can slow the process. Just in case, though, she recommends stocking up on sunscreen.
Likelihood: Have you been outside in the last week?
SCENARIO: ASTEROID IMPACT
The asteroid that exploded over Russia in February was a stark reminder that there’s a lot of junk in space that just might have our name on it. And it doesn’t have to be the big stuff you’d see in a Michael Bay film, either. The Russian rock was just an estimated 60 feet wide — nothing like the “planet killer” that was “the size of Texas” in Armageddon. Although 1,500 people were injured when it blew up, it was considered generally harmless. But mostly because it exploded 15 miles up. Imagine if it hadn’t: an 11,000-ton rock moving at 42,000 mph, it still kaboomed with the force of 30 Hiroshima bombs, according to experts cited by the New York Times. Could do a fair bit of damage. The famous Tunguska event of 1908 — involving a bigger asteroid with a steeper approach — flattened trees over an area that, according to comparisons on various websites, was much larger than Washington, D.C.
Ways to prepare: Keep Bruce Willis on speed dial.
Likelihood: Pretty small, which is good, because Willis is getting old. For example, according to a risk-assessment web page maintained by NASA, object 2007 VK184 has a 1-in-1,750 chance of hitting Earth sometime between 2048-2057.
SCENARIO: A NUCLEAR WASTE SPILL ON OR NEAR THE LAS VEGAS STRIP
“The worst case scenario in my view would be a collision of a shipment [of high-level nuclear waste] and a fuel tanker,” says Phil Klevorick, program manager of the Clark County Nuclear Waste Division. “So you have a very high fire hazard. Now at the same time, there’s a rainstorm, so what doesn’t get airborne from an explosion and fire is washed into the storm runoff and gets into the water supply.”
Unfortunately for Klevorick and perhaps for everyone else, the U.S. Department of Energy, which until recently (and potentially again soon, if some in Congress have their way) planned on sending high-level waste through Southern Nevada for burial in Yucca Mountain, is “not required to look at the worst-case scenario under NEPA” (the National Environmental Policy Act), he says.
Any kind of spill near the interstate highway or railroad going past the Strip would be very bad for Las Vegas, Klevorick says. A spill at Interstate 15 and Tropicana Avenue could potentially expose 100,000 visitors and locals, so that would not be a positive for the Chamber of Commerce. Cleanup could be horrendously destructive and expensive. But even a small event would have lasting impacts, he says.
“The perception of an incident would create a fear factor that would be impossible to contain,” Klevorick says. “If we were to actually have an accident close by, it would certainly affect tourism.”
Ways to prepare: Don’t send nuclear waste through Southern Nevada.
Likelihood: The Department of Energy estimates that there is less than a 1 percent chance of an accident and spill during the transport of high-level radioactive waste, Klevorick says. However, he adds that the estimate is based on a single shipment. If Yucca Mountain is opened, hundreds of shipments on rail or truck could pass through or near Las Vegas every year.
SCENARIO: MASSIVE EARTHQUAKE SLAMS THE REGION
“There’s definitely faults in Las Vegas,” says Ken Smith, a scientist who looks at these things from Reno’s Nevada Seismological Laboratory. Most of the earthquakes that affect Nevada and Clark County are relatively small, often too slight to be noticed.
But sometimes they’re bigger, and they are very tough to predict.
“Definitely there are earthquakes that can happen,” Smith says in the calm and reasoned tones of a researcher taking the long view. “If you have earthquakes like that fairly regularly, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a bigger event.”
In 2008, the tiny Nevada town of Wells was hit by a 6.0 magnitude earthquake that did extensive damage. “The hazard in Las Vegas is estimated to be slightly less than in the Wells area.”
That’s the good news. The bad news is that much of Vegas’ urban architecture (although designed to take some rolling and rocking) is built on an alluvial plain, which can amplify some of the movement in a quake. Masonry buildings of brick and cement are the most vulnerable.
Smith says that a magnitude “large-6” quake likely would do tens of billions of dollars in damage to Las Vegas.
Ways to prepare: Enforce strong building codes, live in a wood-frame house, be prepared to survive days on your own.
Likelihood: Perhaps once in every several hundred years, on average, Smith says.
SCENARIO: VEGAS DRIES UP
The Colorado River is in trouble. Demand is increasing even while the river is over-allocated; snowfall and runoff is decreasing and, as climate instability increases everywhere, could fall off rapidly; and the users occasionally look like a pack of rabid dogs fighting over the carcass of some rotting beast.
Las Vegas needs the Colorado, which supplies more than 90 percent of its drinking water. The Southern Nevada Water Authority has a $15 billion plan to drill, pump and pipe water from rural Central Nevada and Western Utah, but it’s not clear how much water that massive undertaking would reliably supply. The expectation is at best only a third or so of what we now consume, and if it happens, it will happen over the very loud and clear objections of the residents of the arid region — much of which gets less rainfall than our own Mojave Desert.
So it’s going to be a very bad day in Las Vegas if the Colorado runs to “dead pool” and we can no longer suck up the muddy remains of the river.
Ways to prepare: Get the seven states, federal government and Republic of Mexico to agree to end the overuse now. Or learn to drink dust.
Likelihood: A couple of Scripps Institute researchers said in 2008 that Lake Mead has a 50 percent chance of being dry by 2021. A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration researcher in 2007 said reductions in Colorado River flow would be 45 percent because of climate change. So all in all, pretty darned likely.
Dropping a pound of anthrax from the top of the Stratosphere tower? There’s a mathematical model for that.
Ernesto Abel-Santo, biochemist and bioterrorism expert at UNLV, used one to determine what might happen if a large quantity of the lethal bacteria was tossed from the 1,148-foot landmark.
Not everyone would be affected, but the first round of people to inhale the spores would likely die before they could be diagnosed and treated with antibiotics.
“Anthrax seems at first like a bad flu,” says Abel-Santos. “By the time you’re sick enough that you have to got to the hospital, you’re already dead.” Anthrax attacks the lungs and lymph nodes, triggering breathing difficulties and throwing the body into shock.
But that’s not the worst of it.
The wind might carry it away, but “Vegas is a bowl,” Abel-Santos says, “and once it hits the mountains it will come back and recontaminate the whole city.”
Thankfully, anthrax isn’t transmissible between humans; a person can only become affected after direct contact through skin, lungs or digestion.
But another biological weapon is highly contagious: Ebola virus.
If Ebola was to be released into the air at a convention center, says Abel-Santo, those infected wouldn’t develop symptoms until four or five days later. In that time, they would likely get on planes and fly home to cities across the nation and world.
Ninety percent of those affected die, suffering a painful death in which internal organs are liquefied and expelled from all orifices.
Once symptoms appear, an infected person will die in 24 to 48 hours.
“The good thing about Ebola — well, I shouldn’t say there’s a good thing,” says Abel-Santos, “but the good thing is that it kills you so fast, there’s not a lot of time to transmit it to a lot of people.”
Ways to prepare: Training for medical and police personnel are key. Police and security need to be trained to spot suspicious behavior, and medical practitioners need to be able to quickly identify the infections, which isn’t easy, since early symptoms resemble those of common illnesses.
Likelihood: “Very low,” says Abel-Santos. “The events that we discussed are predicated on someone having enough technical skill to produce a lot of raw bioterrorism materials without killing themselves while making it or being detected. Not an easy task.”