13 ways Sacramento bites it

Fire! Zombies! Alien invasion! Don’t laugh—experts explain how it could happen to us.

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For links to sources and more from the experts, see the online version of this story.

Warning: Sacramento is going to bite the dust. Big-time.

Think ruined. Midtown J Street—empty. The Capitol? Blown up. The freeway overpasses? Buried in a drift of volcanic ash. Tower Bridge? Annihilated by a blazing asteroid. Power Balance Pavilion? Finally destroyed for good, thanks to massive flooding.

Is it the end of the world as we know it? Some, after all, believe the apocalypse is nigh, scheduled for December 21, as the Mayans reportedly once predicted.

Maybe, but maybe not. Planets die and, at some point, the Earth will meet its end and may finally encounter a meteorite big enough to do more than create a huge hole and mass extinction, or it may get fried to a crisp and consumed when the sun expands outward before finally kicking the solar bucket, but it will be done.

Over. Kaput. Toast.

It’s what might happen closer to home that worries us, however. As it turns out, cities are a lot easier to destroy than planets—in fact, they’re a lot like people that way: easy come, easy go. Take a look at Pompeii, Italy. One belch from the right volcano, and it’s an archaeological site instead of a metropolis.

Who knows when Sac’s time will finally come, but the following are 13 unlucky ways we could find ourselves deader than Midtown 30 years ago—as well as some expert opinions on just how likely such scenarios really are.

But whether we’re talking grim realities or remote possibilities, rest assured, Sacramento really will meet its maker.

The question isn’t if, it’s how.

1. Ring of superfire

Leaping fireballs and thick, acrid smoke have cut a path across a giant swath of the region, from Elk Grove to Natomas. The city looks—and smells—like a giant barbecue pit.

That’s what a firestorm, a.k.a. a superfire, just might do to Sac one day.

Anything’s possible, and not just because future local budgets could leave some fire stations on brownouts. No, the real cause will be increasingly high temperatures and an extended drought that will desiccate our already arid climate.

This chance for mass burning is solid. Take, for example, what might happen if two fairly sizable fires meet in an Elk Grove neighborhood. Flames licking at the shingle roof on an older home—not to mention those surrounding brittle trees?

Whoosh—there goes the subdivision, down like a fiery ring of dominoes.

Factor in warm, steady winds and air so smoky it resembles a toxic brown soup—it may take a couple of days, but as the fire spreads, the destruction could be devastating, not just to one street or neighborhood but, eventually, to the entire region.

How likely is such a scenario? Bottom line: Malcolm North, a research plant ecologist with the United States Department of Agriculture and professor of forest ecology at UC Davis, thinks it’s possible, if not exactly probable.

But, he said, if firefighting forces were depleted and flames started torching homes in high winds, it could happen.

“Homes are great fuel sources and actually drove most of the structure loss in Angora,” North said of the 2007 Lake Tahoe-area fire that blazed through thousands of acres, destroying hundreds of homes and commercial structures.

“Your neighborhood is only as safe as its weakest link,” he said. “Once one home really gets going in high winds, it can combust adjacent homes.”

That said, it’s still more apt to happen in a place surrounded by forests—the foothills and Sierra Nevada communities—rather than grasslands, such as those around Sacramento.

“It’s pretty unlikely,” North said, citing the presence of water and bypasses as firebreaks in particular as part of the city’s safety net.

But still.

“It’s certainly possible,” he said. “[It] probably has a higher probability than the zombie apocalypse.”

2. Don’t let the bioterrorists win

Congrats. You’ve been bioterrorized, as have a number of other recipients of snail mail, including SN&R. Twice.

Imagine this scene: A piece of mail is delivered to your cubicle. Routine, right? Yes, but then you drive the letter opener into the envelope, and white powder sprays out all over your desk. Inside, there’s a note claiming that the substance is anthrax—even though it resembles cane sugar.

But this isn’t the sweet stuff (and for the record, neither was the “aerosolized anthrax” SN&R received in the mail 2007). As FBI agents told the paper then, such deadly agents are both hard to get and hard to handle. It takes an expert, and weaponized anthrax has identifiable markers that can be tracked to the lab from which it originated.

No, the real bioterrorism threat would involve releasing a deadly infectious agent in a crowded place—a method that would, in effect, turn people into carriers of destruction, spreading the material as they went about their daily business.

Think about it: It would take just one person, incubating a disease as his flight hurtled toward Sacramento International Airport, to eventually infect passengers all over the city—not to mention the world.

All right, so that’s not terribly likely, either, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Such a biological agent would be noticeable—and make those exposed terribly sick—so quickly that the agencies responsible for stopping it—the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, for one—would, in theory at least, be able to contain it before it spread. What is likely? Colds, flu and the norovirus—which probably won’t kill you, but might make you wish it would while you’re throwing up.

So, you know, relax.

3. Attack of the planet killers!

Here’s what we know: NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory studies asteroids—called “near-Earth objects” or NEOs—and is on the lookout for danger and any NEO with a probability of striking Earth that’s greater than 1 in 100 million.

An asteroid the size of a football field or smaller would do little damage—they usually break up in the atmosphere. But occasionally, a massive one gets through. Then you have incidents such as the 1908 meteorite impact at Tunguska in Siberia, which leveled a forest for about 800 square miles.

Or, to put it in simpler terms: A meteorite the size of a house could wipe out the region—from Raley Field in West Sacramento to Folsom Dam—with immediate, deadly impact.

Even Bruce Willis can’t save us from a massive meteorite strike. All he’d manage to do, according to a study released last month by a group of graduate students at England’s University of Leicester, is create a bunch of radioactive little meteorites to smash us up and set off Geiger counters for generations.

If the meteorite’s a total planet killer, what comes after doesn’t matter. The alternative’s not exactly reassuring—if the meteorite’s not an immediate planet smasher and doesn’t burn up in the atmosphere, well, we may never know what hit us.

4. Blow your top

It’s snowing in Sacramento! That’s a rare thing—but, hey, wait a minute. That’s not snow: It’s a light-gray ash floating in on the tremors from that little earthquake that just shook the region. And it’s what could happen if Yosemite National Park’s Long Valley Caldera, a geologically active supervolcano, finally wakes up from its long afternoon nap.

It’d be pretty bad—but take comfort knowing things can always get worse. When the Long Valley Caldera quite literally blew its top 760,000 years ago, for example, the experience was similar to the 1991 explosion of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines. The big one at Long Valley in pre-prehistory spewed an eruption cloud of gas, ash, dust and rock 30,000 feet into the air.

Worst case? Sacramento escapes the brunt of it and “only” suffers three quarters of an inch of ash and particles before the wind shifts and dumps it on Reno, Nev.

Still, you can forget about traveling. Not only would the incident shut down the airport, cars would have a hell of a time trying to drive through this dark, heavy snowfall. Volcanic ash traveling through a car’s air-intake systems typically results in, well, a dead car.

Not quite the apocalypse, granted, but the Long Valley Caldera is just one of the volcanoes that rings Sacramento. There’s also a volcano at Clear Lake, plus the entire chain of geologically active mountains that stretch from Lassen Peak to Mount Shasta.

And what if more than one erupted?

That’s “extremely unlikely,” according to Margaret T. Mangan, scientist-in-chief at the United States Geological Survey’s California Volcano Observatory in Menlo Park.

“The volcanoes are not linked in the subsurface, and each act independently of one another,” she said.

In fact, a catastrophic eruption like the one that formed the Long Valley Caldera is, according to Mangan, “very rare.” A similarly sized eruption in California, either in the Long Valley area, or at one of the other volcanoes in the state, is extremely unlikely.

illustration by MCKY

And we’d have a little bit of warning first, too, thanks to sensors and other valuable technologies.

“Unlike earthquakes, volcanic eruptions are usually preceded by measurable disturbances, including ground deformation, volcanic-type earthquakes and gas emissions,” Mangan said.

But if it did happen, the ash—not lava—would be our biggest concern.

“The main impact to Sacramento from any future eruption is likely to be disruption of air traffic over California, due to drifting ash clouds at high altitude,” Mangan said.

5. A plague upon your city

No, not the plague, but a plague. One of the problems we’re facing now, often as a result of climate change, are emerging diseases. A new strain of flu—which, at its worst in 1918, had a mortality rate of about 25 percent—won’t kill a city, though it will place incredible stress upon its resources.

No, to kill the city we’d need a disease with a mortality rate closer to 65 or 70 percent—in the range of, say, the Ebola virus—and with an incubation period long enough to prevent containment measures and quarantine from working.

While Chris Andis, a press representative for the Sacramento County Department of Public Health, declined to speculate on the probability of these kinds of epidemic disasters because it would be too “difficult,” she referred us to the CDC’s Zombie Preparedness site (www.cdc.gov/phpr/zombies.htm).

Apparently, being ready for zombies is pretty much the same thing as being ready for Ebola.

6. Climate change—or apocalypse yawn

No, we’re not kidding. Climate change could kill Sacramento in a number of ways—loss of food, increased damage and mortality from severe weather, increased sources and severity of infectious diseases like West Nile virus—but it will be a very slow apocalypse. Boring, even. Sort of like the one the whole planet is experiencing.

Given that we’re not doing much to stop or mitigate it, climate change is the inevitable slo-mo train wreck for human culture.

For a pessimistic view, read anything by James Howard Kunstler—who once told SN&R that Sacramento might do well, given our port, farmlands and water, if we can keep Southern California’s drought-mad, hungry hordes at bay (see “Questions for Kunstler,” SN&R Feature Story; January 26, 2006).

“The best thing, though, is that you’ve got water,” Kunstler said. “Los Angeles is going to be hurting on that one. The whole south state is going to be in agony. And they may just decide to come up and take what you’ve got.”

7. Alien invasion!

We won’t recognize these aliens. That’s because we’re looking for the guy with three eyes, or maybe that slimy, toothy, pointy-headed thing popping out of somebody’s chest, or the flying saucer parked on the Tower Bridge.

Instead, we’ll probably write it off as a variant on the flu, or maybe some strange mutation of West Nile virus.

It could start when some rock enthusiast picks up a piece of what looks like pumice on a hike in the foothills, brings it home, and then accidentally drops and cracks it. No biggie—until our rock hound starts running a fever and develops a weird, reddish-purple rash. Everyone this person touches (or has touched in the days before the symptoms show up) will get it, too, and then pass it on to other people and animals.

You can blame the rock—but this isn’t just any old chunk of earth or meteorite; this rock was made by someone. Someone not from around here.

This rock contains microbes, and in the microbes’ DNA is a message—a greeting card from across the galaxy, with entire cultures encoded for our reading enjoyment.

Could this happen, or is this just some bad science fiction?

Yes and yes. According to Albert Harrison, professor of psychology at UC Davis, there may very well be intelligent life out there interested in communicating with us, but they’re not very likely to show up—or to send a greeting card with a bug in it.

“Because of the distances involved, the likelihood of actual physical interaction with other life-forms is almost nonexistent,” Harrison said.

While Harrison does believe that there’s a chance we’ll eventually find evidence of life elsewhere, we won’t have to worry about rampaging aliens or their viruses.

Rather, contact via technology is much more likely.

“If you spotted microwaves or lasers, that’s technology that we would know came from intelligence,” Harrison said. “It’s less likely, though, not inconceivable, that a probe could enter the solar system. We’re getting very good at it, so I don’t see why others might not also have that capability.”

8. The real zombie apocalypse

No, really.

Don’t blame the bath salts. Blame the parasitic phorid fly. Over at San Francisco State University, researchers discovered this little bug that turns honeybees into zombies before killing them dead.

The details are explained, exhaustively, in a study, “A New Threat to Honeybees, the Parasitic Phorid Fly Apocephalus borealis,” published in PLOS One, a peer-reviewed online science journal.

The quick-and-dirty explanation: Without honeybees, there’ll be much less food. Not scared yet? The honeybees are already in trouble, thanks to colony-collapse disorder, the phenomenon in which worker bees from a beehive suddenly vanish. Because of zombie bees—and other bee losses—we’ll have less food.

And when we get hungry enough, we’ll eat each other. Convoluted, yes, but there you have it.

OK, maybe calling it a zombie apocalypse is a stretch, but the health of bees is critical to the health of people. Since the zombie bees have been spotted all over Northern California, we’d like to suggest becoming a citizen scientist and helping the actual scientists at ZomBee Watch (www.zombeewatch.org) as it monitors this threat.

9. Delta breeze = nuked!

Yes, nuclear weapons still remain a big enough threat to worry about. A small nuclear device would wipe the city off the map; a big one would take out the entire area.

Fortunately, it’s not very likely at all. Despite fears to the contrary, nuclear weapons remain the domain of nations. Some of those nations are certainly terrorists, but Sacramento’s probably pretty low on their list of targets. Nuclear annihilation may still be possible, but we won’t be the first to go.

Of course, there’s still fallout, and if San Francisco gets hit, we’ll have both invisible radioactive particles dropping on our heads and traumatized survivors on our doorstep.

But, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the biggest danger is downwind, and 80 percent of the fallout occurs in the first 24 hours. Basically, if there’s a Delta breeze for the first day after the bomb hits, we’re in trouble. But FEMA recommends taking to shelter and keeping the radio on the emergency frequency for further instructions.

Makes you feel really safe, right?

10. Don’t blame it on the rain

Picture this: A train of storms floods Sacramento’s low-lying areas—and more than a few basements. But this time, it won’t just be Natomas or the Pocket Area under water: The Tower Theater will be up to its marquee in puddles, McKinley Park will resemble a marshy swamp and Cal Expo will be little more than a giant swimming pool.

Oh, and don’t forget Midtown—all that water will lap at the steps of high-water bungalows, effectively turning the grid into a lake.

And the water won’t be the worst of it.

Sure, the leaves always block the drains in Boulevard Park, but in this future watery Sacramento, the city will be overwhelmed with rain, deadly runoff and an overworked levee system.

Local meteorologists will have a field day. So will apocalypse junkies who will recognize this potential Sac destroyer as the USGS’s hypothetical ARkStorm—a.k.a. the Atmospheric River 1000 Storm.

The ARkStorm (yes, its name echoes the Old Testament’s Noah’s ark parable) is a potential superstorm that could cause up to an estimated $725 billion in damages and repair, affecting more than 25 percent of California homes, according to the USGS.

But you can’t just blame it on the rain.

Water from the drain backup could make it impossible to escape—not to mention the potentially deadly consequences of a city “protected” by unsound levees.

While it’s extremely unlikely that more than one levee will break—simply because a break in one spot relieves pressure on the rest of the system—a recent report from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is hardly reassuring: 40 miles of levees around Sacramento don’t meet federal maintenance criteria.

Never mind that this means our levees are ineligible for federal funds should they be damaged in a storm. The point is this: They’re not up to the job in the first place.

illustration by MCKY

The aftermath of an apocalyptic storm and flood combination would be devastating. In the case of New Orleans, according to U.S. Census Bureau numbers, roughly one-third of the city’s residents did not return after Hurricane Katrina hit that city in 2005.

A rising river and muddy, unstable levees would attack Sacramento’s flood protection from both sides. One levee break is catastrophic. Two seems unthinkable. Three? Well, that’s apocalyptic.

11. Rage in the machine

Glitches. That’s what we might think is happening at first. It’s just some weird malfunction, a temporary power surge, a batch of bad chips from the Intel factory.

But after the ATMs spit receipts but no money and the iPods play the same song 16 freakin’ times in a row, you’ll realize this: The machines are trying to kill you.

They run you down like a crazy driver on Arden Way. Attack you on Highway 50. Bulldoze you right out of that post-bender stupor at Sacramento State University.

The scenario is, actually, not that far-fetched.

Indeed, the idea of a robot apocalypse “is becoming more and more interesting with each passing year,” said V. Scott Gordon, professor of computer science at Sac State. “And, yes, by increasingly interesting, I mean increasingly plausible, in one form or another.”

In fact, Gordon points to the Internet as proof.

“If the Web were to suddenly shut down, the effects would be nothing short of catastrophic,” he said.

For all practical purposes, business and industry could come to a grinding halt because of the necessity of a working Web to conduct transactions.

And, Gordon added, “Most financial systems have no backup plan for what to do if the Web were to become unavailable.”

The good news, he pointed out, is that the Web is so widely distributed that the whole thing is “very unlikely” to all go down at once.


“Computer viruses are becoming increasingly sophisticated, and some have even been written to evolve and adapt like actual organic viruses,” Gordon said. “It is conceivable that an adaptive virus could someday become sophisticated enough to bring down a large portion of the Web.”

Whether such a virus was built to terrorize or evolved on its own, Gordon thinks “that would qualify as a sort of robot apocalypse.”

Then, there’s the “[technological] singularity.” It started as a science-fiction term referring to the rate at which intelligent technology advances, Gordon said.

“The idea is that if machine intelligence ever exceeds human intelligence, then it follows that those machines could repeat the process and make even better machines,” he said.

In other words, machines might enslave us, try to replicate us, use us for batteries or, simply, exterminate us.

“This intelligence explosion would quickly render us irrelevant, with unpredictable and scary possibilities.”

12. Toxic shock

This is another in those so-obvious-you-can’t-believe-it apocalypse possibilities. With all the crap we’ve added to not just the planet but our houses, offices, schools and homes, how likely is it that we’re killing ourselves? There are numerous studies reporting that the water contains gender-altering substances, changing the sex of fish and frogs. Then there’s last year’s Finnish study, “Recent Adverse Trends in Semen Quality and Testis Cancer Incidence Among Finnish Men,” which reports that sperm counts have dropped precipitously in recent years. Concern about the hormone-mimicking effects of bisphenol A, used in plastic food packaging and baby bottles for 40 years, has led to consumer warnings and—in California—limiting its use.

But what if our own industry creates an environment so toxic that we can’t even reproduce?

Face it: Humans tend to ignore long-term consequences, which makes this sort of apocalypse very likely. It won’t kill off the city overnight; instead, we’ll just waste away. But at least the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency makes it possible for us to check on our own environment—right down to the ZIP code—with its Envirofacts website at www.epa.gov/enviro. On the site, explore the environmental toxicity status of your own air, water, soil—even radiation.

13. At long last, the rapture

It could all finally go down something like this: You’re sitting in Temple Coffee downtown, finishing off your third Americano decaf, which means, naturally, that you’ll need to visit the bathroom.

When you return, however, the café is an entirely different place—largely deserted, except for a few confused-looking people and piles of left-behind clothes and shoes.

That’s right. It’s the rapture.

The rapture, as explained in some Christian doctrines, results in the instant disappearance of every true Christian as they join Jesus Christ in heaven.

The rest of us? We’re left to deal with the aftermath when the antichrist arises and takes power over the whole world.

And don’t forget all the unholy things that will follow: famines, plagues, oceans turned to blood, earthquakes, stinging locusts with the heads of men and sudden darkness over the Earth. Oh, and then Jesus comes back and sends all the unbelievers to hell.

It’s going to be really, really bad.

This rapture described in Tim LaHaye’s best-selling Left Behind novels probably isn’t how it will play out. In fact, there are a boatload of rapture believers who don’t think this is the likely scenario (not to mention an even larger group of Christians who don’t buy into rapture theology at all).

Still, there are a significant number of local Christians who think the rapture will happen—even if it doesn’t exactly resemble the above scenario.

Ken Birks, a pastor at The Rock of Roseville, calls it just a matter of time.

“For the church, it will be one of the greatest times,” he said. “I believe we will rise and shine.”

But for everybody else? Not so good.

“We’ll be seeing the judgment of Revelation come upon the Earth,” Birks said. “Shortages of food, seas turning to blood. I would expect to see those things happen literally, not figuratively.”

But as for it happening any time soon—much less a schedule predicted by self-proclaimed prophets such as the Rev. Harold Camping, who predicted the end times would arrive in spring of 2011?

“Not going to happen,” Birks said. “Nobody knows the date. The Bible specifically says that no one will know the day or the hour.”

Still, Birks understands our fascination with the subject.

“Every generation thinks the Bible is talking about them,” he said.

“When you look at the world, you wonder, how much farther could it really go? I don’t know that we are, but looking at things now, we could be the generation.”