September 25, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Scientists at Imperial College London and Purdue University have unveiled their new and improved impact effects calculator, ‘Impact Earth’.  First revealed in 2004, ‘Impact Earth’ is a web-based tool, designed to quickly calculate the environmental and regional consequences of an asteroid or comet colliding with our planet.

Lying awake at night worrying about being obliterated by an asteroid hurtling towards us at breakneck speed may seem like an irrational fear. However, the huge success of ‘Impact Earth’ suggests that many people are concerned about the effects of a real-life Armageddon (or  Deep Impact depending on where your loyalties lie).  Originally intended for scientists, unexpected public interest in the first impact effects calculator (receiving 10 million hits in its first week) sparked an overhaul and improvement of the programme as knowledge has advanced.

Users can choose the diameter and density of the meteor, the velocity and angle of impact, the target material and their distance from the impact. While watching your custom-made meteor plunge towards the earth, the website’s algorithms calculate the full effects of the impact including seismic activity, the size of the crater, the likelihood of a fireball and how far from the impact you would need to be in order to survive.  Based on sound scientific calculations, the website is used by impact research groups and many government agencies including the US Air force, NASA and the US Department of Homeland Security.

A major new addition is the tool’s ability to estimate tsunami wave height at a given distance away from the impact. Dr Gareth Collins of Imperial College told the BBC “This had been a popular request, but we didn’t put it in the original calculator because there simply wasn’t consensus back then on what the hazard was. There’s since been some good research and we now have a better understanding of the issue”.

An object the size of a football field collides with planet earth roughly every 2000 years, causing significant local damage. The asteroid Apophis is currently our biggest threat, possibly striking the Earth in 26 years time. ‘Impact Earth’ is a valuable tool in understanding the possible effects such an event would have. The interactive and visually exciting design is now aimed at a broad global audience and has sparked even larger public interest than expected. The collision of extra terrestrial objects with earth is a very real threat and should be of interest to everyone.

So, next time you’re lying awake worrying about the apocalypse ‘Impact Earth’ can help. Just make sure the meteor you build is small, slow and lands somewhere far, far away!