On The Space Show tonight, Dr. David Livingston intereviewed Dr. Bryan Laubscher. More on this in another post, but one of the topics that came up was a common question “What happens if the Space Elevator breaks?” The idea has been (un)popularized in Science Fiction (Ben Bova’s Mercury and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy come to mind) that such an event would lead to a planet-wide catastrophe. This is not true, of course, for the current vision of a Space Elevator – a ribbon to space, thinner than a sheet of paper. Depending on where the break occurs, much of it may fly off into space, much may burn up in the atmosphere and some may fall to earth.
Blaise Gassend (a name you should know if you are interested in any of the technical aspects of Space Elevators) did some serious study into this matter, going so far as to create some simulations. You can find them on this web page – they are most interesting.