So far this summer, the idea of the end of the world has been very popular. Hollywood has been giving us apocalypse movies, with "World War Z" being the latest. A zombie takeover of humanity isn’t particularly likely, though. If the world does end, it’ll probably be from something a little less dramatic. With that in mind, here are ten possibilities of how the apocalypse might finally happen.
One of the scariest threats to life on Earth lies deep below the sea, just waiting for a little warmth to free it and kill us all. Methane clathrate is a form of water ice that exists in vast amounts on the ocean floor. This ice contains a large amount of the greenhouse gas methane. As global temperatures increase, these clathrates are swelling, and when it gets warm enough the methane frozen inside them will explode, sending gas, ash and smoke up through the ocean in enormous geysers. These explosions could trigger a cascade of more clathrate release, finally sending our ecosystem over the tipping point to extinction.
The sun is a harsh mistress. Sure, it provides the light and heat that we need to survive, but it’s also capable of wiping us all out at a moment’s notice. Every so often, the surface of the sun experiences what’s called a “solar storm,” sending a burst of highly-charged particles out into the ether. Mild ones we see as lovely light shows in the upper atmosphere. Strong ones? Well, the last one that we had was in 1859, and it was so powerful that it set fire to telegraph lines. Just imagine the devastation that something like that could wreak on our modern power and telecommunications infrastructure. It would drive the world into a new Dark Age.
In 2010, we were reminded of the incredible destructive force lurking deep within our planet when the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland erupted, sending a massive plume of over 250 million square meters of material up into the air. It shut down air travel all over Europe for days. That’s not so bad, right? Guess what – there’s an active volcano in Yellowstone National Park that could do 10,000 times worse. All it would take is two to three of the world’s five supervolcanoes to erupt in close succession to wreak total havoc on our ecosystem, blotting out the sun and causing famines.
Extinction-Level Asteroid Impact
Some apocalypse theorists believe that the end of life on Earth won’t come from anything we do. Instead, it’ll happen because of the random dance of celestial objects. In 1994, the comet Shoemaker-Levy collided with Jupiter, causing massive fireballs as large as 3,700 miles in diameter. Many theorize that the extinction of the dinosaurs was caused by a rock just six miles wide striking the Earth, and to wipe out our world it would take an asteroid a sixth of the size. Thankfully, astronomers haven’t identified any of that size, but there’s a 300-yard wide one that will hit our orbit in 2029 and could conceivably kill millions.
We’ve had a couple scares in recent years with bird flu and other new, incredibly communicable diseases. Thankfully, none of them have been overwhelmingly fatal, but that could change soon. Bacteria and viruses, by their nature, mutate to survive, and it’s only a matter of time before one hits on the perfect combination of communicability and fatality. In the past, the influenza epidemic of 1918 claimed more lives than World War I, and incurable diseases like AIDS have changed human civilization. With our increasingly connected world, it’s easy for a pandemic to spread throughout the continents, and no place on Earth would be safe.
Colony Collapse Disorder
The ecosystem of Earth is a complex setup of many interlocking pieces, and if one drops out the results could be catastrophic. That’s actually happening right now with the common honeybee. Colony collapse disorder is a phenomenon where the entire population of worker bees in a hive suddenly disappears. There are a number of theories as to why; including rising pesticide use and ambient electromagnetic radiation, but the fallout is serious. Bees are responsible for helping a third of American food crops reproduce, including almonds, blackberries and especially soybeans. Without them, food production will be significantly more expensive and difficult.
Disclaimer: We’re not endorsing any major world religion with this one. However, enough people believe that something supernatural is going to flip the light switch on humanity that it deserves a mention. Probably the most popular theory is the Rapture, which in Christian theology means God reaching down and grabbing all of the true believers and lifting them up to Heaven. That means millions of individuals vanishing in the middle of whatever they were doing – driving, performing surgery, operating nuclear power plants, you name it. That could cause worldwide chaos, and that’s not even factoring in the rivers of blood, demonic attacks and other things that are supposed to happen.
What zombies are to the 2010s, nuclear war was to the 1980s. The Cold War against the forces of Communism resulted in both sides building up arsenals of doomsday bombs that could destroy the Earth a dozen times over. The modern threat of nuclear war is a little different. With rogue players like Iran and North Korea working to develop atomic bombs, all it will take is two nations escalating to kick off the apocalypse. As few as 100 bombs detonated in a short period of time could cue “nuclear winter,” a massive climatic effect that would bring Earth temperatures down to their lowest point in thousands of years. This would devastate food production, causing widespread famine and death.
Renegade Black Hole
There was a lot of panic that booting up the Large Hadron Collider would cause a man-made black hole to form, sucking all matter and energy in our solar system into it. That didn’t happen, obviously, but celestial vacuums are still something to worry about. The closest known black hole is about 159 quadrillion miles away, so it doesn’t pose a threat to us, but scientists just discovered something new: roaming black holes. These actually move through space, leaving a trail of gravitational destruction behind them. If one got even a billion miles away from Earth, it would be enough to change our orbit around the Sun. Any closer and it could actually suck us in beyond the event horizon.
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This one might take a little out-of-the-box thinking - literally. The nature of reality isn’t nearly as simple as we might think, and one theory that seems to be picking up steam is that everything we experience may just be a simulation, created by code in some unimaginably powerful computer. Yes, just like "The Matrix," but real. Three scientists at the University of Washington published a paper that used the theory as a way to explain several inconsistencies in our universe. And, of course, the possibility exists that whoever is responsible for this simulation could, at any point, just turn it off.