It’s the end of the world as we know it – but how are we all going to die? Hollywood loves a good apocalypse, with movies like Sunshine, Take Shelter, and Mad Max envisioning what it might look like when the world ends. While many of us worry more about climate change than a volcano or astral storm, maybe we should pay more attention to our fiery doom.
Scientists have dedicated surprisingly little research to how we’re all going to die. Anders Sandberg, a catastrophe researcher at the University of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute told Science magazine, “there are more papers about dung beetle reproduction than human extinction. We might have our priorities slightly wrong.” Nevertheless, scientists have come up with some ideas. Here are eight ways it could all end, according to the top brains in the biz.
1. Global pandemic
Every year, about 2 million people get sick from a superbug, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 23,000 of those die, and our rapidly urbanizing society doesn’t help. A recent United Nations estimate said that 66% of the global population will live in urban centers by 2050. That means disease will spread quickly through those areas.
According to a study by the Global Challenges Foundation, humanity will only expire from pandemic if it’s severe enough to prevent recovery. World Health Organization scientists do keep tabs on superbugs that could end us all. They’re just as real as the topic that has us all sweating (literally).
2. Climate change
According to the National Centers for Environmental Information’s Global Climate Report, 2016 was the warmest year in over a century. That’s the third consecutive record-breaking year. This was also the fifth time in the 21st century that happened, and the 40th consecutive year the temperature has been above average.
Because climate change leads to fewer resources and less food, the late Australian scientist Frank Fenner predicted humans would be extinct within 100 years. According to the Geologic Society of America, the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are higher than they have been for many thousands of years. If we keep off-gassing the way we are now, the projected global climate change by the end of the 21st century will result in significant impacts on humans, as well as various other species.
That said, this next threat shows that our own emissions aren’t the only disaster we have to worry about…
3. Solar storms
If the storms regularly devastating our planet weren’t enough, scientists say we have to worry about storms outside of it too.
Scientist Bill Murtagh studies coronal mass ejection — or eruptions from the sun that send solar buckshot barreling into space. Science Magazine says spectacular-looking CMEs don’t harm humans directly; that is, except when charged particles shooting into Earth’s magnetic field interfere with power grids. That means blackouts – big ones – if a CME hits at the right place, which scientists say has a 12% chance of happening in the next decade. The good news? Solar telescopes give us about a 30-minute warning before these storms hit. The bad news? Most countries (including the U.S.) don’t have the infrastructure to respond.
While CMEs haven’t caused the kind of outages scientists fear just yet, there is precedence for the fourth possible apocalypse.
We’ve all heard about the 10-kilometer-wide asteroid that helped decimate the dinosaurs. Even space-matter a fraction of that size could devastate our planet, New York University Earth scientist Michael Rampino told Science. Not only would asteroids obliterate the actual impact site, but massive earthquakes and tsunamis could radiate across the planet, causing devastating effects. We’re talking rock fragments blocking out the sun, debris igniting wildfires, and particles heating up the atmosphere until we’re all essentially living in an oven.
The Global Challenges Foundation predicted that even a 5-kilometer asteroid would cause significant climate change. Larger objects would likely lead to extinction. Those events happen only about once every 20 million years, but the force produced is 100,000 times greater than any bomb ever detonated.
Speaking of bombs, asteroids aren’t the only hot button we need to worry about.
If volcanic hotspots in Yellowstone, the Long Valley Caldera in eastern California, the Taupo Volcanic Zone in New Zealand, and several spots in the Andes erupt, the ramifications could be global. That’s because of the interconnectivity of our society, according to volcanologist Hazel Rymer.
An article in The Guardian explained how even the 2010 eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull caused millions of dollars in losses for Kenyan farmers. During that event, many perishable exports went to waste, so larger eruptions could be globally catastrophic.
A super-volcano produces more than 450 cubic kilometers of magma. One of those caused the Permian-Triassic extinction event, in which 96% of marine species and 70% of land vertebrates died out. The return period for such a volcano is about 30,000-700,000 years, but these eruptions are difficult to predict.
Fallout from the next threat can have wide-ranging effects not only on climate, but our health. For better and worse, it’s both manmade and completely preventable.
6. Nuclear war
In 1983, Carl Sagan predicted a global nuclear war might kill several hundred million people. Long-term though, it’s the resulting nuclear winter that poses the real threat. Sagan estimated a loss of 500 trillion lives, assuming humanity lasts for 10 million more years, but even the short-term effects are significant.
A small nuclear conflict could cause widespread famine, according to Global Catastrophic Risk Institute founder Seth Baum in The Risk of Nuclear Winter. Researchers simulated crop growth in the aftermath of a 100-weapon nuclear war and found it could cause productivity to decline by 10-40%. The studies considered crops in China and the United States, but others would likely perform similarly.
The next cause of our downfall is somewhat shadier, but definitely no less threatening.
7. Ecological catastrophe
This term refers to a potentially permanent reduction in the environment’s ability to sustain life, according to the Global Challenges Foundation. Since an estimated 40% of world trade is based on biological products, we depend heavily on the natural world. However, biodiversity is declining 100–1,000 times faster than pre-human levels. That’s a catastrophic rate if we don’t reverse some of the damage.
Ecological collapse is typically precipitated by a quick, disastrous event. It’s also unclear exactly how much damage we can do to the biosphere without threatening our own survival.
Finally, because we are so globally interconnected, we’re one of our own biggest threats.
8. Global systems collapse
The Global Challenges Foundation defines this term as an economic or societal collapse on the global scale. That’s a pretty broad category. But because our world economic and political system is so interconnected, we’re especially vulnerable to failures caused by societal structures. That could mean power grid collapse, ecological disruption, or even financial crisis.
Mathematical and climate historian Peter Turchin predicted on Phys.org that political turmoil will peak in the 2020s. He also said widening social gaps, declining economic health, and living standard stagnation could cause our downfall. The 2016 presidential election did confirm his theory, but it’s not inevitable. By taking broad collective action, we can reverse the course of societal decline.
Scientists can’t say for sure how it’s all going to end, but we can prepare. That means reversing climate change, safeguarding against superbugs, and electing leaders who can work globally. There are things we can do to make it to the 22nd century without a Fury Road situation coming into play as an inevitability.
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