Humans have a macabre fascination with the end of the world — will humankind go out with a bang or disappear with a whimper? Are we the architects of our own demise or cosmic pawns in a game we can’t control? Let’s sort through fiction, fluff and outright fantastical futurism to discuss the top four evidence-based apocalyptic theories.
Want an apocalypse theory that’s effectively a sure thing? Opt for the sun-as-red-giant scenario. As noted by Universe Today, in approximately 5.4 billion years the sun will start fusing helium and rapidly expand across the orbits of Mercury, Venus and potentially Earth. But humanity will be gone long before this happens, since our star is steadily increasing in both luminosity and heat: In just over 1 billion years, a 10 percent increase to heat energy will trigger a runaway greenhouse effect. Two and a half billion years more and the sun boils our oceans, melts the ice caps and turns Earth into a second Venus.
The solution for humanity? Get off Earth and find a new planet. Exploration of Mars and the outer solar system is a good start.
Robots are taking human jobs. While the Atlantic notes that new machine workers can help maximize productivity and the worries of full-scale robot replacement are unfounded, pervasive concern persists. Author Isaac Asimov called it the “Frankenstein Complex” — fear that intelligent machines will rise up and destroy their human overlords. This idea is a perennial favorite in pop culture: James Cameron’s Terminator saga remains a cinematic highlight of the above.
But it’s not a sure thing. Done right, super-intelligent computers could be our best ally against other apocalyptic issues — as noted by the Global Challenges Report, “an intelligence of such power could easily combat most other risks in this report, making extremely intelligent AI into a tool of great potential.”
Zombie Ground Zero?
Zombie apocalypse scenarios are popular fare in both novels and television, but chances are we won’t see any walkers, shamblers or brain-eaters in the near future. Nevertheless, global pandemics remain a serious risk, with researchers giving a five-percent chance that infectious events will wipe out humanity in the next 100 years. For a disease to transition from “annoying” to “end of the world,” it needs four key characteristics:
- Incurable — Like current strains of Ebola, there’s no way to “cure” the illness, simply survive (if you’re lucky).
- Almost always fatal — Diseases like rabies almost invariably kill unvaccinated human beings. If an unknown pathogen with this kind of mortality rate emerges, we’re in trouble.
- Easily transferable — If the illness can spread like common colds, there’s virtually no way to stop new infections from happening.
- Long incubation period — Diseases such as HIV that allow massive windows of time for new victims to become infected fall into this category.
If a disease with these four factors were to emerge in a high-density urban area, modern medical science would be hard-pressed to do anything but lessen the suffering of the infected. That said, investment in rapid-response disease detection and quarantine procedures could help reduce the impact here from “world-ending” to “disastrous.”
According to Science Magazine, there’s a repeating apocalyptic problem every 100,000 years — supervolcanoes. These volcanoes start with collapsing underground calderas that produce eruptions of more than 450 cubic kilometers of magma. For reference, the Mount St. Helens explosion in 1980 released just 0.25 cubic kilometers of magma. Worst-case scenario? In addition to large-scale destruction near ground zero, the ash lifted into the atmosphere blocks the sun and drops global temperatures by five to ten degrees Celsius for a decade, while ash on the ground kills all plant life.
Potential prevention here stems from solid knowledge, which means more time and money for scientists trying to understand and model volcanic behavior. While it may be impossible to eliminate the chance of a supervolcano explosion, good data could help minimize the impact.
Prepping for the end of the world? Watch out for angry robots, don’t ignore new infections and take a long view on volcanoes. Oh, and don’t be fooled by the bright, friendly sun — it’s coming for us all, eventually.