Don’t look up! Winston-Salem is ground zero for simulated asteroid strike
An asteroid hurtling through space is expected to hit Earth.
Its likely target?
Winston-Salem, where the space rock is expected to unleash explosive energy hundreds of times more powerful than the atomic bomb the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, at the end of World War II and leave destruction over a 20-square-mile area.
We pause here in our account of impending Armageddon for an important note: THIS IS ONLY A DRILL!
About 160 representatives from local government, private organizations and companies joined state and national agencies including NASA and the U.S. Space Command last month in working through a detailed hypothetical scenario in which astronomers discover an asteroid that is likely to impact Earth six months later.
As the two-day exercise progressed, it became clear that the fictional asteroid would strike the Winston-Salem area. At that point, coordinating a simulated local response became the priority, explained August Vernon, the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County emergency management director, who gathered with the rest of the local contingent at the Benton Convention Center.
About 80 federal team members met at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., and 40 to 50 state-level participants huddled in Raleigh, he added.
“We knew there would be questions that we’d never had before,” Vernon said of the exercise. “Like if you have to evacuate the entire Triad, how would you do that? Do you evacuate the hospitals? Do you evacuate the jail?”
‘Predicting and protecting’
As the simulation played out, those kinds of questions became increasingly relevant.
Early on in the exercise, specific details of the asteroid such as its size — and therefore the damage it could cause — remained uncertain until just days before its simulated impact, just as it would in a similar real-world situation. Existing technology, including ground-based radar, capable of capturing characteristics of an approaching asteroid requires the object to be within relatively close proximity to Earth, NASA explained in its account of the exercise.
Still, participants ultimately were able to estimate the size of the asteroid, where it would likely hit and with what force about a week before its simulated entry into Earth’s atmosphere. That provided a window of time to prepare.
“An asteroid impact to our planet is potentially the only natural disaster humanity is capable of accurately predicting and preventing,” said Lindley Johnson, planetary defense officer at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “Conducting exercises of this nature enable government stakeholders to identify and resolve potential issues before real-world actions to respond to an actual asteroid impact threat would ever be needed.”
In the exercise, 20% of residents had either refused or were unable to evacuate 24 hours before impact, and participants were faced with difficult questions about how to deal with the situation.
The simulated asteroid enters Earth’s atmosphere at 2:02 p.m. on Aug. 16 at nearly 35,000 miles per hour from the north-northeast.
The resulting fictional destruction is caused not by actual impact but rather when an explosive air burst 8 miles above the Earth triggers powerful shock waves that reflect off the ground and send a powerful “overpressure wave” outward.
The exercise had similarities to an incident in February 2013, when an asteroid with a diameter of 65 feet created an explosion as it entered the atmosphere about 20 miles above the city of Chelyabinsk in Russia. Its shock wave broke windows and knocked down parts of buildings in six Russian cities and led to 1,500 injuries, mostly to people hit by flying glass.
‘Would I still be here?’
Vernon, the emergency management director, admitted that “a little bit of the science fiction geek came out in me” during the exercise.
When asked how Winston-Salem became ground zero for a simulated asteroid strike, he replied: “That’s a good question.”
“We just happened to have a relationship with some of these folks at the federal level and they asked if we’d like to be involved,” Vernon added.
The experience was especially valuable at a local level, where joint exercises agencies and organizations typically engage in regularly were put on hold during the pandemic, Vernon said, adding that many of the procedures followed in the simulation carry over into other emergency situations.
Vernon noted that he’s seen claims on social media ranging from cynics who suggest the exercise never really happened to those who fear it was no simulation at all.
“There’s no conspiracy theory,” he insisted. “There’s nothing on the way. If I knew (an asteroid strike) was going to happen, would I still be here?”
John Deem covers climate change and the environment in the Triad and Northwest North Carolina. His work is funded by a grant from the 1Earth Fund and the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation.
Subscribe to our Daily Headlines newsletter.