The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power is finally here and it’s taking us back to Middle-earth for the first time since Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy. With Prime Video's double episode premiere last week, viewers were introduced to some new characters and reintroduced to some familiar ones.
While the peoples of Middle-earth are no strangers to bizarre and supernatural events, perhaps the strangest thing to happen in the first episode is the arrival of the Stranger. He descends, quite literally, in the episode’s closing moments during a fiery collision from the heavens. Of course, the Stranger is a magical being and not beholden to the same physical limitations as humans — or elves — but it got us wondering: how possible is it to survive a fall from the sky? (We'll leave questions about who the Stranger is for another post, but he is almost certainly a wizard and maybe is Gandalf.)
IT'S NOT THE FALL THAT KILLS YOU
We all fall sometimes. Even when it’s from a relatively low height, like if you trip while walking, it can be painful. Hitting the ground with any velocity is no fun. Falling from a higher height, however, dramatically increases the danger and it all has to do with speed. By and large, the longer you’re falling, the faster you’re going, at least up until a certain point. That point is known as terminal velocity.
Really, the speed at which you’re falling is a function of gravity. On Earth (and presumably Middle-earth), the force at which gravity pulls on you is 9.8 meters per second per second. Simply put, for every second you fall, your velocity increases by 9.8 meters. If you fall from high enough, that speed can increase pretty dramatically but there’s a point at which you no longer accelerate any faster. At least under the right conditions.
In a vacuum, there is no terminal velocity. If you started falling from space and the atmosphere just so happened to vanish at the same time, you’d keep accelerating forever. Or at least until you hit the surface. When falling through an atmosphere, however, there are two opposing forces working on you. The first is gravity, as mentioned above. It wants you to keep moving faster and faster until you hit the ground. The second is wind resistance and it wants you to slow down. At a certain point, those two forces even out. Gravity can’t pull you toward the surface any faster and wind resistance can’t slow you down any more than it already has.
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For an average human being, in a belly flop position, the standard terminal velocity is about 200 kilometers per hour or 120 miles per hour. If the gravitational force were different, if the density of the atmosphere were different, or if the shape and mass of the person were different, that number would change. In fact, for many smaller animals wind resistance wins out and terminal velocity is low enough to be generally survivable.
For instance, an ant has a relatively large surface area compared to its mass, which means that wind resistance works more strongly on their bodies than on a human. According to estimates, the terminal velocity of an ant is only about 6.4 kilometers per hour and that’s an impact speed they are capable of surviving. That means you could hypothetically drop an ant from any height, and it would hit the ground largely unscathed. In J.B.S Haldane’s 1926 essay titled On Being the Right Size, he beautifully said “a rat is killed, a man is broken, a horse splashes.”
The relationship between the construction of the human body and the construction of our planet just isn’t well suited for surviving falls at terminal velocity. Moreover, you only need to fall from about 1,500 feet or 450 meters to reach terminal velocity. That’s pretty high, but it’s only a fraction of the height skydivers typically jump from, which makes it all the more curious that people can and have survived plummeting to the earth.
SURVIVING THE UNSURVIVABLE
Of course, the best thing you can do is have a parachute. At its core, a parachute works by increasing your surface area and thus increasing the wind resistance. It slows your descent such that you can comfortably touch down on the surface without shattering into a disassembled human puzzle. Failing that, you still have some options.
Unfortunately for us, but fortunately for the people involved, the number of cases in which people have sustained falls from heights exceeding 1,500 feet is low. That makes it hard to study, but it has happened.
The trick is to change the values we described above so that your descent and subsequent impact is slowed down. Changing the force of gravity isn’t an option — if you figure out how to do that, you’re likely in line for a Nobel Prize and untold riches — but you can fiddle with resistance.
If you’re planning to fall from a great height in the near future, you might try shedding some mass in advance. If you can be lighter, your mass to surface area ratio will decrease and wind resistance will do more work. If that can’t be managed, you’ll want to carefully choose what you impact on the way down.
Photo: Tsvetomir Hristov/Getty Images
Anything that can slow you down in chunks as opposed to all at once will help. As reported by NPR, people have survived falls at terminal velocity by managing to contact power lines or tree branches on the way down. It probably won’t be pleasant, but it will take shed some of your velocity before your journey ends.
Landing on a house might also do the trick. It’s going to hurt, but you might break through which will slow you down considerably. Roofing materials aren’t the world’s best bungee cord, but they might do in a pinch. Falling on dense grass or into water is also better than hitting hard soil or rock, but in the case of water there’s the risk of drowning. It’s all about managing the respective dangers. Lastly, you might try rotating your body so that you land feet first.
You’ll want to do that as late in the game as possible because making your body vertical will reduce wind resistance and increase your acceleration. That said, your legs can act as a sort of collapsible cushion for the vital parts of your body. You’re not going to walk away from that, but you might survive.
Perhaps the best strategy, as evidenced by The Rings of Power, is to be a magical being possibly from another plane of existence. Sadly, we mortals aren’t so lucky. Bend your knees, aim for the trees, and hope for the best.