Our atmosphere, proximity to the sun, and countless other beautiful coincidences not only permit living things to survive and evolve but also thrive. And yet, here we are, sitting at desks and in coffee shops and walking down the street like it isn't some kind of extraordinary miracle. But all good things must come to an end. The life on this planet likely won't cease until billions of years from now. But, depending on the vicissitudes of astrophysics, it could also happen tomorrow or anytime in between.
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Earth is surrounded by a protective magnetic shield, called the magnetosphere.
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The field is generated by Earth's rotation, which swirls a thick shell of liquid iron and nickel the outer core around a solid ball of metal the inner core , creating a giant electric dynamo. The magnetosphere deflects energetic particles that emanate from the sun, changing its size and shape as it's hit. The resulting flood of high-energy particles that slam into Earth's air can trigger beautiful auroras, or sometimes disruptive geomagnetic storms.
But if the core cools, we'd lose our magnetosphere — and also our protection from solar winds, which would slowly blast our atmosphere into space. Mars — once rich with water and a thick atmosphere — suffered this same fate billions of years ago, leading to the nearly airless, seemingly lifeless world we know today. The sun, and our position relative to it, is perhaps the most important piece of our tenuous existence.
But the sun is still a star. And all stars die. Right now, the sun is midway through life, steadily converting hydrogen into helium through fusion. That won't last forever, though. Billions of years from now the sun will run low on hydrogen and start fusing helium.
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It's a more energetic reaction and will push the sun's layers outward, and possibly start pulling the Earth toward the sun. We'd be incinerated and then vaporized. That or the sun's expansion would push the Earth out of orbit. It'd die frozen as a rogue planet, untethered to any star and drifting through the void.
Speaking of rogue planets, worlds often get kicked out of their solar systems during formation. According to recent simulations, in fact, rogue planets may outnumber stars in the Milky Way by , to one. One of those rogue planets could drift into the solar system and destabilize Earth into an extreme and inhospitable orbit. A world that's large enough and drifts close enough could even kick us out of the solar system entirely.
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Or cause us to collide with a nearby planet, like Venus or Mercury. Publicizing a nuclear accident was considered a significant political risk, but by then it was too late: The meltdown had already spread radiation as far as Sweden, where officials at another nuclear plant began to ask about what was happening in the USSR. After first denying any accident, the Soviets finally made a brief announcement on April A child who was only one-year old at the time of the Chernobyl disaster undergoes an ultrasound test to see if there are any long-term effects of possible radiation exposure.
Soon, the world realized that it was witnessing a historic event.
At least 28 people initially died as a result of the accident, while more than were injured. The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation has reported that more than 6, children and adolescents developed thyroid cancer after being exposed to radiation from the incident, although some experts have challenged that claim.
International researchers have predicted that ultimately, around 4, people exposed to high levels of radiation could succumb to radiation-related cancer, while about 5, people exposed to lower levels of radiation may suffer the same fate. Yet the full consequences of the accident, including impacts on mental health and even subsequent generations, remain highly debated and under study. What remains of the reactor is now inside a massive steel containment structure deployed in late Containment efforts and monitoring continue and cleanup is expected to last until at least The city of Pripyat was built to house workers of the nuclear power plant in the s.
It has been an abandoned ghost town since the accident, and is now used as a laboratory to study fallout patterns. The impact of the disaster on the surrounding forest and wildlife also remains an area of active research. Today, the exclusion zone is eerily quiet, yet full of life. Though many trees have regrown, scientists have found evidence of elevated levels of cataracts and albinism, and lower rates of beneficial bacteria, among some wildlife species in the area in recent years.
Yet, due to the exclusion of human activity around the shuttered power plant, the numbers of some wildlife, from lynxes to elk, have increased. The Chernobyl disaster had other fallout: The economic and political toll hastened the end of the USSR and fueled a global anti-nuclear movement. What is now Belarus, which saw 23 percent of its territory contaminated by the accident, lost about a fifth of its agricultural land.
At the height of disaster response efforts, in , Belarus spent 22 percent of its total budget dealing with Chernobyl.