The final countdown: the top 13 apocalypse scenarios
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Here’s a cheerful question: how do you think the world will end? Will underground monsters rise against us? Perhaps a giant asteroid will obliterate our planet? Maybe a nuclear winter will make survival impossible? All fun scenarios. This is our list of 13 (unlucky for some) possibilities.
13. The Jupiter Effect
The 1974 book ‘The Jupiter Effect’ by John Gribbin and Stephen Plagemann foresaw that the end of the world would come from the alignment of the solar system planets. This would create many catastrophes, such as a giant earthquake on the San Andreas fault, which would occur on 10 March 1982. The best-selling book was wrong, but the future is always uncertain. Perhaps they were off by a few decades?
12. Zombie apocalypse
Well this is some food for thought. Get it?
Weaponised ‘zombie’ pathogens, misuse of microbes and global pandemics, helped along by air travel and urbanisation, could lead to a biological disaster.
Experts at the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health last year published a detailed report on Technologies to Address Global Catastrophic Biological Risk, which sets out 15 technologies that could help when a disease catastrophe strikes. Although the risk of this type of catastrophe might differ in severe weather, the threat of a biological weapon or virus still forms part of today’s threat landscape.
Secret military experiments or cosmic rays could cause the walking dead. There are also diseases today that resemble zombie-like behaviour, like rabies or sleeping sickness. We all know there are treatments for this sort of ailment, but what if a new and indestructable mutation of an existing disease rears its ugly zombie head?
11. Subterranean apocalypse
We all know there’s life on Earth, so what about life in Earth?
Like the plot of the 2002 dragon film, ‘Reign of Fire’, there could be something sinister underground, just waiting for the time to emerge and wreak havoc on the world. What about giant man-eating worms that try and conquer us, aka graboids from ‘Tremors’? The actual likelihood of this being the end of the world is rather slim, though.
If you think about it, there’s a lot we still don’t know about creatures of the deep sea, for example. There could be a squad of kraken slowly making their way up from the depths, adjusting to pressure changes, taking their sweet time. We’ve all seen the battle scars on sperm whales when they come back from their hunting trips in the deep blue.
There’s proof of existence 10km below sea level in the Mariana Trench – 10cm single-cell organisms called xenophyophores. These extremophiles may not be a prime example of civilisation destroyers, and not akin to the giant squid. But anything is possible.
On land, the deepest-dwelling creature found to date is in a cave 1.98km beneath Earth’s surface – the eyeless Plutomurus ortobalaganensis, which eats decaying matter. Not particularly life-threatening, seeing as they’re blind.
10. Alien invasion
There are plenty of novels and films that depict aliens invading and trying to supplant us. Some of these fictional stories are said to be allegories for protest against military hegemony.
If you believe in aliens, let’s hypothesise: on other distant planets somewhere in the galaxy, there are civilisations that have their own name for humans. Perhaps ‘idiots’.
Science has helped us discover life in the unlikeliest of places (such as the creatures from the Mariana Trench), so it would be remarkable if there wasn’t life somewhere else.
Anyway, the likelihood that aliens will swoop in and destroy everything is small. There’s a big difference between discovering life on other planets, and aliens conquering us.
9. Malthusian crisis
A Malthusian catastrophe is the prediction that our population will outpace agricultural production. Recent advances like vertical farming take advantage of limited space in densely populated urban areas, reducing the potential for this kind of catastrophe. However, our bee population is dying, so we may not have as much nourishing food in the future.
About 100 trillion honeybees exist in the world according to education website Owlcation. It sounds like a lot, but it really isn’t.
Greenpeace says global bee decline is down to industrial agriculture, parasites/pathogens and climate change. The loss of biodiversity, destruction of habitat and lack of forage due to monocultures and bee-killing pesticides are threats for honeybees and wild pollinators.
We’d still have our wind-pollinated cereal grains, which provide most of our calories, but a lot of fruit and vegetables could not be grown at such a large scale without bees. We’d have to pollinate by hand, which is very costly, and our nutrition would suffer.
8. Large-scale volcanism
Sounds extreme, but in reality, large-scale volcanism is a slow process, so we’re not going to see volcanoes exploding everywhere, enveloping the world in lava – Vesuvius in Pompeii or Krakotoa in Indonesia were catastrophic, but they wouldn’t end the world if they erupted simultaneously.
This kind of volcanism is said to be the cause of many mass extinctions through the years. According to Understanding Evolution (evolution.berkeley.edu), scientists suspect massive fissures and vents in the earth that continually ooze steady pulses of lava would cause a lot of problems, generating much more lava than explosive volcanoes, and affecting vast areas. That sort of eruption could cover millions of square kilometres with lava over a few hundred thousand years.
This oozing volcanic activity seems to cause extinctions through secondary effects, not through eruption. Oozing releases gas that poisons animals and plants, and contributes to acid rain and climate change. However, if the hot lava encounters rocks that contain organic compounds, like coal deposits, huge amounts of greenhouse and toxic gases are released – carbon dioxide, methane, and sulphur dioxide.
The events set off by these shifts in atmospheric chemistry could be truly catastrophic, but this sort of apocalypse would take an extremely long time. Large-scale volcanic activity could impact organisms and their habitats at many different levels, ultimately leading to skyrocketing extinction rates.
7. Heat Death of the Universe
Other names include the Big Chill and Big Freeze. It’s self-explanatory – the universe would turn into a state of no thermodynamic free energy, so it wouldn’t be able to sustain processes that reduce entropy. Got it?
And it’s not just the Earth that will end. According to space writer Gemma Lavender, the idea of heat death arises from the second law of thermodynamics – that entropy increases over time in an isolated system (this system being the universe). The system will evolve to a state of maximum disorder (or thermodynamic equilibrium). “When this happens, all energy will be evenly distributed throughout the cosmos, leaving no room for any reusable energy or heat to burst into existence. Processes that consume energy, would cease,” she explains.
Lavender says Lord Kelvin, who proposed the idea of Heat Death in the 1850s, referred to the loss of mechanical energy as the theory of heat. “In fact, it has been suggested that the more the Universe expands, the cooler it gets. “We’re looking at a continual expansion of the universe, according to readings of the cosmic microwave background, but at a decreasing rate and it looks likely that the cosmos will end in a Heat Death,” she says.
It will take about 10 to the power of 100 years (a Googol) for Heat Death to occur, so don’t panic just yet.
6. Interplanetary contamination
There are two types of possible interplanetary contamination: forward contamination is the transfer of life and other forms of contamination from Earth to another celestial body. Back contamination is the introduction of extra-terrestrial organisms and other forms of contamination into Earth’s biosphere.
We know the ‘War of the Worlds’ story and how it ended. Humans thought all hope was lost, until the aliens got the common cold and died, leaving the crows to pick their bones. Therefore, aliens could come and give us their version of a cold and wipe us out, and we wouldn’t even have time to blow our noses.
It doesn’t have to be aliens that infect us, though. Sample-return probes from space, or returning crews, could bring microscopic biological contaminants from other worlds. This sort of contamination from otherworldly viruses, bacteria or spores, means beings from our world would probably have no immunity. And then we all die.
That’s why astronauts and space samples are quarantined to make sure they’re squeaky clean.
A large asteroid or comet colliding with the Earth could cause an explosion greater than all the nuclear bombs on the planet. Wahey.
This kind of impact is thought to have caused the extinction of all land dinosaurs 66 million years ago. The asteroid was about 10-15km in diameter, and the collision would have released the same energy as 100,000,000 megatonnes of TNT (over a billion times the energy of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki).
More likely than some, but less likely than others, a big old rock coming through our atmosphere, potentially breaking into smaller, super-destructive pieces that scatter all over the Earth and we have ourselves another Big Bang.
And if the impact doesn’t kill us, any alien germs on the intruder could set us up for some interplanetary contamination. Yikes.
4. Nuclear holocaust
A nuclear holocaust, nuclear apocalypse or atomic holocaust is a horrific scenario where nuclear weapons (from nuclear warfare) cause widespread destruction and radioactive fallout, collapsing our civilisation and making some or all of Earth uninhabitable.
Nuclear warfare and its fallout would have devastating consequences, like firestorms (sounds terrifying), a nuclear winter (a severe and prolonged global climatic cooling effect – that alone could end modern civilisation) and radiation sickness. So after the initial destruction of cities and nations by nuclear blasts, the survivors would have that to look forward to. Temporary loss of most modern technology would also occur as a result of electromagnetic pulses.
We are fully aware of how devastating nuclear weapons can be (Hiroshima), and how radiation sickness affects life for years after the initial contact (Chernobyl). Ionising radiation (the kind you’d find in minerals, atom bombs and nuclear reactors) destroys DNA, weakening and breaking it up, so you die a horrendous death (look up Hisashi Ouchi if you’re morbidly curious), or the cells become damaged enough to mutate into cancer. Future generations will often be affected with birth defects and abnormalities.
Let’s look at who has what: nine countries own a total of 13,860 nuclear weapons – the US and Russia have 92 per cent of them. Ploughshares Fund, which is an organisation dedicated to reducing nuclear threats, reports that Russia has 6,490 weapons, the US has 6,185, France 300, China 290, UK 215, Pakistan 150, India 130, Israel 80, and North Korea 20. Or so they all say.
Something we all do not want. Infamous pandemics include the Spanish Flu, which infected 500 million people in 1918-20 and killed 50 million, and the devastating HIV pandemic, another seemingly unstoppable force in the1980s, which still affects us now. If something similar were to happen again, and we couldn’t find a way to stop or control it, mankind could be decimated as it spreads throughout the world.
2. Climate change
This is one we can all get on board with. Except if you believe it doesn’t exist and disagree with 97 per cent or more of climate scientists.
Nasa says in just the last 650,000 years there have been seven cycles of glacial advance and retreat, with the abrupt end of the last ice age about 7,000 years ago.
Earth’s average surface temperature has risen about 0.9°C since the late 19th century, largely down to increased carbon dioxide and other human-made emissions. Most of that warming has been in the last 35 years, and the five warmest years on record have occurred since 2010.
So what will global climate change do? Expect to see events like frequent wildfires, longer periods of drought and more intense and longer tropical storms.
Also, if we melt all the ice the sea level will rise by 65m, and a lot of the world as we know it will eventually vanish under water. If we carry on emitting carbon, the average temperature will reach 26°C instead of the current 14°C.
Naturally, that’ll play havoc with our world. It wouldn’t be the end of us, but we would be up the figurative creek without a paddle. And it’s already happening.
This is the potential large-scale sabotage of all computerised networks, activities and systems. Cyber terrorism, cyber warfare, cyber crime and hacktivism. This kind of cataclysm would lead to wide-scale internet disruption or economic collapse.
It’s likely that banks and industrial control systems would be targeted.
Nigel Stanley, CTO at TUV Rheinland, says ransomware has shown how a single class of attacks can have huge impact, with many victims that are not targeted becoming collateral digital damage. “A bit like getting the flu on a train journey as you decided not to get the vaccine (analogous to not patching your systems or building a decent backup/restore strategy),” he adds.
His bigger concern is the services that provide society with fundamentals to live and work: “This includes the Global Navigation Satellite System for timing as well as navigation – something few think of. Communications networks are particularly vulnerable: social media outages will cause many to get alarmed, as will the nefarious use of communication channels to spread fake catastrophic warning messages.”
Stanley reckons we need to consider physical damage to communication systems and satellites too.“There is a publicly discussed comment attributed to MI5 that society is ‘four meals away from anarchy’ – in other words, large-scale disorder if food supply chains are disrupted,” he says.
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