Zombies vs. Asteroid: The apocalypse conundrum

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Mar 29, 2016, 4:47 PM EDT

Zombie pathogens. Monster asteroids. Stuff you usually watch on late-night horror movies with a pint of mint chocolate chip. If you were to stop random people on the street and ask their opinion on which one they’d rather (try to) survive, you’d probably get glares that questioned whether your neurons were functioning. However, it’s a more relevant question than most would like to think. The not-so-distant past has shown us that both pandemics and natural disasters (some on a scale comparable to the aftermath of an asteroid strike) are very real possibilities. So why not a space rock strike or killer pandemic?

Luckily, the asteroid-paranoid can hold off on doomsday prepping. Astronomers have spotted hundreds hurtling through space, but none of them has represented a serious threat. Yet. That still doesn’t negate the fact that a space rock pummeling earth at some point is a very real possibility. The Sentinel space telescope will start sleuthing the universe for them as soon as 2018. What happens if it zeroes in on one? NASA has an app for that. Kinetic impactor spacecraft can actually deflect space junk off course by repeatedly slamming into it. The only catch is that it has to be detected at least a decade ahead. Nine years away? Just nuke it, says NASA. Scientists are seriously considering the very Deep Impact possibility of sending out spacecraft armed with nuclear bombs  to pulverize anything that comes too close. Enormous asteroids aside, nowadays it seems you only need to flip to the news to find out about the latest earthquake, hurricane or tsunami. That threat is always looming.

As for a virus that turns previously sane human beings into corpses ravenously hunting for brains, that may be the stuff of haunted houses and The Walking Dead, but the possibility of a comparable pandemic is very real. You don’t need to search the horror section of Netflix to find evidence of the devastation caused in recent history. Ebola , SARS and the avian flu are the stuff of nightmares even without their own critically acclaimed TV drama.

Epidemiologists generally agree there will be one within the next century which could infect up to one billion and be fatal to at least a tenth of that population. Not to mention the economy also getting sick with the massive global recession (and eventually depression) that would result. Our current lifestyle doesn’t exactly help the situation. At 7 billion and counting, the earth’s population explosion means more people living in closer and closer proximity to each other—bacteria and viruses couldn’t ask for a better breeding ground.

So let’s assume, for the sake of hypothesizing, that a previously undetected asteroid was plummeting towards earth this very minute. Or that zombies were spreading a deadly pathogen as they pounded on your front door. If you had no way out of an apocalypse, which one would you be more likely to crawl out of? Read on to find out—oxymoron warning ahead—your ideal doom.

Partly cloudy with a touch of … what is that?

So earth just got sucker-punched by a space rock several miles wide. In any world-ending scenario, the weather could very well determine who comes out alive (if anyone does at all). From the moment it struck, the asteroid aftermath would dictate the forecast — which wouldn’t be on TV with the world’s electricity suddenly wiped out. The earth would be showered with wreckage upon impact. Dark clouds of debris would block 70 percent of sunlight and plunge our planet into a deep freeze. The average temperature would plummet by an average of 14/12 degrees Fahrenheit worldwide (about the equivalent of the last ice age). Then, a year or two after living in the freezer section, we’d be in for an epic meltdown. Greenhouse gases would trigger extreme heat after the dust settled. This would set off forest fires, which would in turn release deadly amounts of carbon dioxide and choke the air with soot. Dust would be everywhere and in everything. The last comparable natural disaster was the Dust Bowl, during which the constant breathing in of dust led to often fatal cases of silicosis or "dust pneumonia." If left untreated, a case of this could leave you coughing up blood and literally turning blue (cyanosis). So it turns out the zombies would have the last laugh, because we’d still be plagued with disease.

You could still have sunshine and butterflies while zombies were happily hunting for brains on your lawn. Not that you’d want to. Some of the most lethal pandemics in history, like the avian flu outbreak of 2014, have festered during warm periods with erratic weather. Fluctuations in temperature and precipitation derailed the birds from their usual migration routes, putting them in contact with new species — and germs.

Pretty soon, strains of flu that had just met were engaged in a pathogenic orgy. If zombies were lumbering this way and that depending on where they could find the best weather (and brains), they would be likely to run into other undead that carried a slightly different mutation of the zombie pathogen. Even if science had miraculously developed a vaccine or cure, humans would be defenseless against the new mutation. We wouldn’t even be safe when the walkers drifted away. Crawly things thrive during the warmer months, which led to the explosion of the Black Death in Europe during the mid-14th century. Weather favorable to rats — or possibly gerbils — meant they multiplied. Cue the fleas. Where there were rodents, there were infected bloodsuckers latching on. Which is why, during a zombie outbreak, the sight of squirrels in your backyard would be cause for terror.

What’s on the menu?

In the case of an asteroid strike, not much. Even emergency food stores would inevitably run out. The freezing out, then burning out of plants would trigger a food chain crisis. Livestock dependent on these plants would die out, which wouldn’t leave much on the table for us. A crash of this magnitude most likely wouldn’t leave much in the way of greenhouses or materials to build any. There are still a few food sources that could survive temperature extremes — but not for the squeamish.

The moringa tree can withstand frozen ground just as well as extreme heat. Its leaves are high in protein and vitamins, and its seeds can even purify water. Tumbleweeds are another edible (though just barely) plant, high in iron, that toughed it out through the Dust Bowl and were brined and eaten when nothing else could take root and grow. You would also be best off grabbing a handful of grubs after your stash of energy bars is depleted. Insects are a main source of protein in many areas around the world, especially in parts of Africa, Asia and South America, where weather extremes such as droughts and monsoons are a fact of life. If you’re not averse to having locusts — which also survived the Dust Bowl — served up for dinner, you could possibly make it through the unbearably hot and dusty phase of post-asteroid devastation.

If there’s anything positive about a zombie apocalypse, it’s that you’d have the time to clear the supermarket shelves of everything canned, wrapped and vacuum-packed before it was clawed by decomposing hands. That’s where the good news ends. Until scientists figure out the formula for a disinfectant to spray over crops, you’re better off leaving anything exposed and high in moisture in the produce aisle. Zombies invading a supermarket would leave a trail of contaminated blood behind. Anything out in the open and so much as touched by the virus would be a seething mass of infection in less time than it takes to watch your favorite sitcom rerun. Pathogens multiply like the world was ending  —which it would be, but you know. They can double in as little as 20 minutes and breed most voraciously in temperatures between 40 degrees and 140 degrees Fahrenheit, a range the USDA officially calls the "Danger Zone."

Cooking that filet mignon until it had the consistency of a rubber sole would be your only option. Even then, water would always stay exposed. You’d just never know if a walker with gaping wounds had just tramped through the river that lead to your local reservoir. The chlorine that is normally used to kill off pathogens would have no effect on this supervirus, so your best bet would be to boil anything from the tap until it died a fiery death.

Give me shelter!

If a mega-asteroid were to come crashing down, it would not only take out, but flatten entire cities. With the deep freeze that would follow, then the searing heat, you’d need to rethink where home is.

Your best bet would be to move to the basement (after you managed to clean out all the debris). Subterranean spaces trap heat during cold periods and stay at least a few degrees cooler during hot periods. You’d also be best off staying in on a Friday night — and most of the time. Human body temperature only needs to dip about 3.5 degrees before hypothermia sets in, and frostbite can attack in under a minute. Anyone who ventured outside unprotected would pretty much be asking to get mummified in ice. In fact, you wouldn’t be leaving the basement for a while, especially once the brutal never ending summer set in. A spike of about 7.5 degrees in body temperature triggers heatstroke, which can lead to coma and even death. Your best bet would be to get on your neighbors’ good side as soon as the asteroid struck, especially if they happened to have snow suits and sunblock in their basement before the space rock struck. Guess who would be best equipped to go out and gather locusts and tumbleweeds.

Zombies trampling your petunias might seem easier to ward off than deadly weather. Hardly. It would be pointless to call an exterminator to fumigate the house with no effective pesticide available. While you could padlock every door and whack a walker upside the head with the back of a shovel, you wouldn’t be able to spot your microscopic enemy quite as easily. Pathogens need five things to fester: time, nutrients, moisture, warmth, and darkness. UV radiation is lethal to even a killer virus. Flipping all the switches would be your first line of defense, however environmentally evil it might seem. At least you’d save on the water bill. There’s no telling when undead fluids would sneak their way into the water system, so in this case no one would mind if you didn’t shower for a week (or a month).

Bacteria are also gluttons for warmth. If the epidemic hit in the winter, you’d be better off in thermal pajamas than with the heat on, and in the summer, you’d need to crank up the AC. Hunkering down in the basement might be a good idea here as well. Also, best not to get too close to anyone. The SARS epidemic of 2003 blew up as it did mainly because of close person-to-person contact. Even then, the iconic surgical masks that were seen all over China in the news at that point wouldn’t be such a bad idea, and neither would latex gloves.

State of emergency

An asteroid collision would be a disaster of the magnitude that normally signals a state of emergency in the U.S. Standard procedure would require state governors to send disaster reports to the president, who would then whether to declare a Major Disaster — if the wires responsible for our phones, TV, radio and WIFI hadn’t gone up in sparks at the moment of impact. With houses and buildings flattened, cars and public transportation wouldn’t stand a chance. Assistance would probably still be mandated and rushed out somehow. Volunteers would have to be willing to weather the extreme weather (and possibly risk their lives in the process).

Even then, it is still doubtful that there would be enough resources to tackle a catastrophe of this scale. Shortages and delays in assistance during Hurricane Katrina proved fatal, and Katrina only affected a fraction of the total surface area an enormous asteroid would wreak havoc on. Worse, the intense heat that would follow would present itself like a whole different phenomenon. Any existing supplies would have been used up immediately after the crash. With modern technology in smithereens, it is doubtful that the next post-asteroid phase could receive government assistance — if the government hadn’t completely dissolved (or ended up casualties themselves) by then.

Zombie pathogens would certainly sound the government alarm once word (or a walker) arrived at the White House. During the swine flu outbreak of 2009, a pandemic that affected 74 countries, the U.S. government’s immediate response was to distribute vaccine as fast and as far as possible. Since there would be no existing vaccine at the time of the zombie outbreak, the government would most have to resort to an immediate call for developing one. How long that would take is anyone’s guess. Not to mention it would be impossible to know how many different strains of the virus existed by the time the vaccine was approved for release by the FDA. In the meantime, the World Heath Organization, which has a 30-page checklist for flu pandemics, would be rounding up health service facilities, personnel and supplies while frantically circulating safety information in every form of media (while simultaneously developing an entire new checklist for the zombie pandemic). Travelers from other infected areas would be detained in a similar fashion to anyone flying back from West Africa during the Ebola scare.

With so many strains of the zombie virus multiplying and mutating, it would be wise to react like Africa did to Ebola and by keeping each biohazard zone contained. We would never really be safe until science developed a vaccine and disinfectant that would target each mutation — if it could catch up.

Anybody out there?

It may seem like a no-brainer that the first thing you’d do in the case of an asteroid crashing into our planet is search for survivors. Wrong.

Studies have found than in disaster situations, 75 percent of people are too paralyzed or freaked out by the initial shock and chaos to run to the neighbors’ seeking signs of life. If you happened to be one of the 15 percent who was able to practice yoga breaths throughout the whole thing, congratulations. Shifting into survival mode is critical, and so is getting a move on — fast. Finding other survivors, banding together, and pooling resources could mean the difference between life and death in these early stages. You never know what sort of unexpected survival necessities they could be stashing. Just think if those same neighbors who used to throw obnoxiously loud parties happened to have snowsuits, sunblock, and even prepackaged food squirreled away in their basements. Not so annoying anymore. Now, how would you put out feelers to find other survivors? Take a cue from every movie ever made about being stranded on an island: fire. Smoke signals going up in the air are visible from up to 300 miles away. While that’s not exactly walking distance, it’s best you found each other before the earth morphed into a giant freezer.

Next to the massive wreckage a mega-asteroid would cause, the upside of zombie pathogens is that germs aren’t capable of wrecking entire networks of electricity. Even if you were in a contained area you weren’t legally allowed to move from, you’d still be able to reach out to other survivors via phone and Internet. At least you wouldn’t be stuck in the Middle Ages, when even the closest friends and relatives wouldn’t visit each other for months for fear of bringing the Black Plague into Aunt Millicent’s living room.

However, while the virus itself wouldn’t threaten our modes of communication, its carriers are a different story. If The Walking Dead is any indication, we all know masses of moaning zombies can wreak havoc on modern amenities. What if walkers stormed Best Buy or trampled telephone wires? It would no longer be easy to get in touch with survivors in other contained areas — unless you suited up in waterproof coveralls and a gas mask to make the journey on foot. Even then, communications would have to be handled with extreme care. Mail would have to be handled with latex gloves and burned after it was read (you just never know what microscopic monsters might be creeping on that envelope). As for transporting supplies such as food and toiletries, you’d just have to hold your breath. Hopefully something in that mouthwash would exterminate the pathogen you didn’t know was making a playground out of your toothbrush.    

Not that either of these are winners, but …

Science clinched the final verdict on this one. With all our resources reduced to shrapnel, it would be near impossible to develop artificial means of shielding large populations against lethal weather. Exposure would equal slow but certain death for most of us. The only thing an asteroid crash really has going for it is that you don’t need a microscope to see what you’re up against. In the case of zombie-itis, there would be exponentially more to eat, even if it was all prepackaged, and you wouldn’t be crunching on locusts unless you actually wanted to. Smoke signals are no competition for working phones and internet. Even with those wrecked by the undead, you’d be spared the weather extremes brought on by a space rock collision. Humanity would at least have some chance at concocting vaccines and disinfectants that would fend off at least some strains of a zombifying pathogen. When death is everywhere, better to be facing a chance of ending up (un)dead than an almost certain grave.