I’m currently a counselor at an overnight boys camp, and, as it turns out, putting 14-year-olds to sleep is quite difficult. The book, What If?, helps. It’s a collection of the author’s webcomics where he gives “serious scientific answers to absurd hypothetical questions” — questions like ‘what if everyone on Earth jumped at the same time?’ or ‘what if you made a machine gun jetpack?’ It’s a perfect bedtime read; the absurd hypothetical questions draw the kids into listening so the serious scientific answers can bore them to sleep.
I thought it would be a fun exercise to create my own absurd hypothetical and try to answer it. Unlike the author of What If, I’m not a former NASA roboticist, nor is there an asteroid named after me. But, I do have access to the internet! What follows is, based on my own research and critical thinking skills, my best guess as to what would happen if it literally rained cats and dogs.
Let’s say there’s a fairly large storm over Kansas. At the base of the raincloud, every raindrop magically transforms into a cat or a dog — their breed, size and weight determined at random. After those magical conditions, everything acts according to the laws of physics.
More than 99.9 percent of the cats or dogs would certainly
die be sent to a farm. Their impact on whatever they fall on, however, would depend. If a raindrop transformed into a hefty Anatolian Shepherd dog, it could weigh up to 150 pounds, or 2 million times more than its original mass. That dog would reach a velocity of 400 mph, bringing down enough force to crush a car. If, more tamely, a raindrop transformed into a baby kitten, it could weigh as little as 1 pound. Still, the kitten would weigh 12 thousand times more than a raindrop, reaching the same velocity of 400 mph (thanks Newton) and could potentially kill a person on impact. (Coconuts weigh 1.5 pounds and routinely kill people from falling off trees.)
So, what would the impact of a whole storm of cats and dogs be?
A storm of our size would have 65 billion gallons of water. The average raindrop has a mass of about 0.035 grams — it takes around 13,000 raindrops to make a pound. With some fairly straightforward math, we can calculate that our storm would have 7 quadrillion raindrops, give or take.
That’s 7,000,000,000,000,000. 15 zeros!
Before diving into math, my friends and I speculated on this scenario. We debated if any of us could survive a storm of cats and dogs, or if that storm could destroy a city. These calculations completely change the scale of our debate.
Within the first 10 seconds of our magic storm, the entire sky would black out. The sheer volume of billions of cats and dogs would kill the hopes of any sunlight trying to break through. After the first minute, over 5,000 dogs or cats would bombard every square meter, crushing houses, skyscrapers, apartments, cars, trains, planes and forests and anything else within the storm.
Once the storm is 5 percent through, the cats and dogs would stack up in a pile so massive it would engulf the storm cloud. At this point, the dogs and cats would no longer fall, per say. They would just generate inside of the pile of corpses. The pile would extend outward thousands of miles on every side, moving as wave the size of North Carolina and swallowing anything in its path.
Once the storm is 25 percent through, the pile would extend across all of North America. Its mass would weigh in at 30 Mt. Everests, and the body heat of the animals would drastically change weather across the globe. Oh and yeah, everyone on our continent would now be dead.
When the storm ends, we reach a total mass of 15 quadrillion kilograms. A majority of the cats and dogs would overflow into the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, increasing global water levels. Life that can access all that dead flesh — ocean carnivores, fungi, insects, worms and other decomposers — would exponentially jump in population, and this would spiral into unpredictable effects on Earth’s global ecosystems. There would also be global warming; if more than 0.1% of cats or dogs manage to survive, their breath would release more carbon in a day than all the cow farts throughout history.
I cannot predict the geopolitics of North America’s death, but I hope most people will mourn the deaths of 600 million people. Anticlimactically, however, I’d wager with -100 odds that most humans on the other side of the world would be okay; if we picked a larger storm to start with, that answer would be different.
If it hasn’t been made clear by now, if you’re within a storm of cats and dogs, you have zero chance of surviving. Absolutely none. So, next time someone says “it’s raining cats and dogs”, make sure they’re using a figure of speech. If it ever actually rained cats and dogs, Noah’s arc wouldn’t even save you.
This article has been inspired by the webcomic xkcd. You can find their work here.