Geek Trivia: Tipping the scales

What type of threat does the Torino Impact Hazard Scale measure?

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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.

Category 5

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.

Magnitude 9.5

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 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 be.

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" Geek Trivia.

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 Trivia, "Overhaul 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!

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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.