It’s been twelve months since we counted down the final minutes of 2019 and joyfully screamed ‘Happy New Year’. We were so blissfully unaware of what was in store for us in the days ahead.
For those who lost their livelihood, their health, or most tragically of all, their loved ones, there is no silver lining that could possibly compensate the overwhelming grief the COVID-19 pandemic has wrought. Or the damage caused by this years’ supersized wildfires and hurricanes.
Some of us have been a little more fortunate. Barring inconveniences such as the need to ration toilet paper or putting on pants for your next Zoom meeting, 2020 was more weird than woeful. It really could have been worse, after all.
How much worse? Well, we can be grateful …
Yellowstone’s supervolcano didn’t explode
Roughly 640,000 years ago, more than a thousand cubic kilometres (about 240 cubic miles) of rock, dirt, and trees were thrown high into the sky when a bubble of magma and hot gases blew a continent wide open.
That same caldera of molten rock, now known as the Yellowstone caldera in North America, is technically overdue for a repeat performance.
Now, there’s a lot packed into that word, ‘technically’. Technically the final book in the Game of Thrones series is overdue. But the timing of past releases just isn’t a reliable indication of when to expect a sequel.
Still, every shimmy and shake of the national park’s landscape has had people wondering if Another Big One is close.
This past June saw a string of a dozen earthquakes shake the region in quick succession. And just this October the regular tick-tock spurting of the geyser known as Old Faithful stopped being so faithful and fell suspiciously quiet.
Nobody would have been surprised if Yellowstone chose 2020 to explode.
Well, nobody except most of the world’s vulcanologists. Research suggests that if anything, the Yellowstone supervolcano was a lot more active in the deep past, and we should readjust our expectations on when it might blow.
Whenever that year is, 2020 wasn’t it.
An asteroid didn’t slam into Earth
All eyes were on a nugget of mineral called 2018VP1 earlier in the year, which had a 1 in 240 chance of smacking into Earth on the day of the US election.
At barely 2 metres (around 7 feet) across, 2018VP1 falls well short of the 140 metres (460 feet) NASA sets as a bare minimum for rocks we really need to worry about. It’s a pebble compared with the 10-kilometre behemoth that wiped out the dinosaurs, and even that one just happened to hit the planet in the worst possible way.
Still, any fast-moving boulder coming within 5,000 kilometres of the planet is a good reason to think about the risks we face from hazardous near-Earth asteroids.
On November 13 – a Friday, no less – the Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System (ATLAS) survey at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii alerted sky-watchers to the passing of a rock the size of a small house.
At a mere 400 kilometres over the Pacific, the observation set a new record for the closest pass of an asteroid. Worse still, since it was obscured by the Sun’s blinding glare, we had no idea it even existed until hours after it had already passed.
It’s not that we had much to worry about, had it hit. The rock wasn’t much bigger than the Chelyabinsk meteor which famously exploded over Russia in 2013.
But the close shave indicates that under the right circumstances we could easily be blindsided by an unexpected cosmic sniper. And if we were going to be blasted back into the Stone Age by an asteroid, 2020 would have made sense, right?
Needless to say, no asteroids of any concern hit Earth this year. Yay!
We weren’t broiled alive by solar radiation
Betelgeuse is a red giant star more than 600 light years away which we all wish would just hurry up and die, because the resulting light show would be fantastic.
Earlier this year everybody got a wee bit excited when the star dimmed with what we all took to be a suggestive wink. It happened again in August. Were those the first notes of its swan song?
Nope. In at least one instance, it was probably an intruding veil of dust – about as exciting as a cloud passing the Sun on a cold winter’s day.
Then we learned Betelgeuse was probably a lot younger than she first looked, so wouldn’t go supernova for a long time, and we all turned our attention to other gloomy topics. If Betelgeuse had exploded, it would still be too far away to do us much harm.
But if the star were a fair bit closer – like just 65 light years away – its death could strip our planet of its ozone and leave us exposed.
Indeed, we have more to worry about from our own Sun’s frequent outbursts of fast-moving charged particles. Thankfully we have a nice magnetic shield protecting us … which is still securely in place, right?
This year just so happens to mark the start of the star’s 25th solar cycle. Hip hooray! Right now we’re at a low point in its mood swings, which is nothing all that special. We see this kind of lull every 11 years.
Aliens never invaded
Remember back in 2017 when our Solar System was visited by a ridiculously fast asteroid?
We still have to triple-check our spelling of ‘Oumuamua every time, but as it was the first confirmed visitor from outside our Solar System, it really wasn’t long before the word ‘aliens’ was mentioned. Throw in the fact it’s a weird shape and has a reddish colour, and it’s a History Channel documentary in the making.
So, to our absolute and utter surprise, it turns out it wasn’t aliens. Go figure.
Not to worry; late last year we had our second confirmed interstellar visitor in the form of a comet called 2I/Borisov, so we got our hopes up again.
Astronomers have been keeping a close eye on it through 2020, and we’ve learned a great deal about the object. It’s a good thing, too. Given the chaos Earth has endured this year, our planet would be ripe for an alien takeover. No doubt they’d even bring their own supply of masks.
Armies of the undead never rose from the grave
It’s rare that archaeologists find intact Egyptian tombs containing sealed sarcophagi that have remained untouched for centuries, let alone millennia. But when they do, it’s a cause for excitement.
The secrets they contain can show us not just what our ancestors might have looked like, but how they sounded, how they lived, and how they died.
But this is 2020. So when the sealed coffins just kept coming this year, we were certain that this was how it would all end; in a wave of desiccated corpses waving their bandages about angrily as they rampage through the streets, right?
With 2020 now officially over, we think we can safely admit it’s unlikely that hordes of the undead are on their way, and any secrets we find in Egyptian graves will ultimately benefit humanity.
Let’s just not open any tombs in January though. Just to be sure.