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Magnitude 9.5, Category 5, F5ï¿?these terms can strike fear in the heart of anyone with access
to a cable news network, as each is shorthand for a highly destructive natural
disaster. While politicians and reporters often describe earthquakes,
hurricanes, and tornadoes as inflicting immeasurable
loss and incalculable damage, the job
of actually quantifying the “unquantifiable” falls to scientists.
As measured by the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale, this term
describes the most high-powered class of tropical cyclones. Scientists
developed the Saffir-Simpson Scale to predict the potential for wind and flood
damage posed by hurricanes. As such, wind speed and the height of the storm-surge
waves created by hurricanes are the determining factors for each level on the scale.
A Category 5 hurricane has maximum sustained wind speeds in
excess of 155 miles per hour and storm-surge wave heights of 18 feet or
greater. That’s more than twice the wind speed and triple the surge height
necessary for a storm to simply qualify as a hurricane.
This term represents the realistic pinnacle of the Fujita
Scale, which estimates tornado intensity and wind speeds based on observed
damage after the disaster. The estimation is necessary because tornadoes
destroy pretty much any instrument that could actually gauge their active
speed. An F5 tornado boasts wind speeds of 261 to 318 miles per hour, capable
of erasing anything short of a steel-reinforced concrete bunker.
This measurement represents a nightmare level on the Richter
Magnitude Scale, which measures the seismic energy released by an earthquake.
The Richter Scale is logarithmic, meaning that a magnitude 2.0 quake releases ten times as much energy as a magnitude 1.0 (and, while not directly logarithmic, does 30 times the damage on average).
Moreover, the scale accounts for a massive amount of energy.
For example, a magnitude 4.0 quake has roughly the same energy output as a small nuclear weapon.
In that context, the famous 1906 San Francisco earthquake’s
8.0 rating is appropriately terrifying. And, in case you were wondering, the
Richter Scale does go above 10, but a 12.0 quake would represent enough force to
shear the entire planet in half.
Yet, for all the destructive power measured by the Fujita,
Saffir-Simpson, and Richter scales, they pale in comparison to the potential
disasters tracked by the Torino Impact Hazard Scale.
WHAT TYPE OF THREAT DOES THE TORINO IMPACT HAZARD SCALE
What type of threat does the Torino Impact Hazard Scale
measureï¿?a breed of natural disaster arguably more dangerous than tornadoes,
earthquakes, and hurricanes combined?
The Torino Scale measures the danger posed by near-Earth
objects (NEOs)ï¿?namely asteroids and comets. It ranks every known rock in the
sky based on the likelihood of its intersecting with the Earth’s orbit and, if
it does cross terra firma’s path, how widespread that impact’s destruction would
The Torino Scale rates these threats from zero to 10. Zero
represents an object that almost certainly won’t impact Earth, and 10 represents
a “global killer” rock that not only will strike Earth, but could
threaten to destroy the entirety of human civilization.
Still think you’re better off worrying about the next thunderstorm
predicted to cross your town’s path? Then consider this: Level 10 Torino
threats occur regularly in the geologic record, with an average frequency of
one strike every 100,000 years.
The notion is scary, but not overly soï¿?and that’s by design.
In fact, scientist Richard P. Binzel created the Torino Scale in 1999 as a public
relations tool for laymen and journalists, who often misinterpret press
releases about potential long-term asteroid impacts as announcements that the
sky is falling.
But for hard-core NEO scholars, only the Palermo Technical
Impact Hazard Scale will do. This scale represents the likelihood of an NEO
impact as compared to the “background” threat of the average space
rock. The rather esoteric Palermo Scale identifies NEOs that bear further
scrutiny, in order to refine their orbital trajectories and determine if and
when they’ll collide with Earth.
Yes, there’s a lot of derivative calculus involved, all of
which yields mere probabilities of impact, which the home audience can easily
take out of context to mean potential Armageddon. The Torino Scale is, for lack
of a better description, a “dumbed-down” Palermo Scale, with more
easily conveyed threat levelsï¿?perfect for the evening news and for some “impactive”
The Quibble of the Week
If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of
this week’s Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article.
Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and
discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia.
This week’s quibble comes from the March 9 edition of Geek
of fame.” TechRepublic member Gibsonrobert
took issue with my classification of the original Ford Mustang as a sports car.
“The Ford Mustang was not a sports car! By definition,
a sports car is a car with no more than two seats. Ford sold three sports carsï¿?the
original Thunderbird, the Cobra, and the Pantera.”
Well, dear reader, Merriam-Webster seems to side with you,
so I’ll defer to your automotive wisdom. Thanks for the car-crazy correction!
For more, check out the Geek
The Trivia Geek, also
known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who’s
duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic
books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.