Nuclear war! Asteroid strike! Pandemic! Climate change! For generations we have been threatened with an apocalypse that would destroy humanity - What does science have to say on the subject?

The world is coming to an end and we are all going to die. Don’t believe it? We read it in a book and therefore it must be true.

Let’s begin with a calming message - the world is doing fine, and it is not that easy to destroy. Humanity however, should be on alert, since compared to the planet itself, it is much more vulnerable. For humans this is indeed a serious cause for concern, but you may be lucky enough to be among the few who will survive the apocalypse. After all, someone must tell future generations how it all ended, or else how will they learn from our mistakes so as not to repeat them? 

Books and films about the end of the world usually construct a rather complex connection with reality. Some, especially Hollywood disaster movies, exist mainly in order to display special effects and destroy the Statue of Liberty over and over again. However, the apocalyptic genre is traditionally aimed at preaching and warning us against the eventual outcome of our actions, if we do not change our ways. Consequently, we have long grown used to hearing statements such as - ‘If we do not restrain the nuclear arms race, the world will be destroyed!’, ‘Beware of climate change!’, ‘Pollution!’, ‘Genetic engineering!’, ‘The heathens and heretics will bring doom upon us all!’. 

The roots of apocalyptic literature lie in the Judeo-Christian tradition of the end of the world. The story is repeated with minor changes: humans sin and as punishment, God brings a great disaster upon humankind, during which all sinners receive their proper punishment, and only the righteous get to witness the brave new world that will grow out of the ruins. 

In the 19th century, romantic literature adopted the pattern to warn against the dangers of progress, and by doing so, brought the idea of an apocalypse from the religious world to the secular world. Today, authors and screenwriters seem to simply have fun destroying everything that they hate, while warning against it along the way. Nevertheless, are such warnings true? Davidson Institute experts looked into the popular scenarios of the end of the world, to try and answer the question - ‘Is the end of the  world near?’

 

סוף העולם | איור: Victor Habbick Visions / Science Photo Library

The world is not about to be destroyed, it is quite durable. Humanity, however, should be concerned. End of the world | Victor Habbick Visions / Science Photo Library

The Hidden Enemy 

Why the world will end: A Pandemic

What we imagine: Long before the emergence of COVID-19, diseases have threatened the foundations of human society. It is no wonder that writers often present imaginary epidemics that could destroy humanity, or at least human society as we know it. The blame usually lies with science, and hubris. 

One of the typical characters in this genre is the mad scientist who develops a particularly deadly virus with the purpose of destroying humanity. Terry Gilliam’s film “12 Monkeys”, features a time traveler (played by Bruce Willis) sent back to the present to find the person responsible for spreading the causative agent of an epidemic that killed most of mankind and left the survivors barely alive, underground. In this scenario, science,  in the form of an engineered virus, is the cause of the disaster, but it is also a source of hope - will future scientists succeed at repairing the disaster brought upon us by present day scientists? 

A much less optimistic approach is presented by author Margaret Atwood in her book “Oryx and Crake” and in its two sequels. Here, the scientist does not stop at creating a pandemic, but also genetically engineers a new and improved post-human race, intended to take humanity’s place. All of this occurs against the backdrop of a future reality that is similar to our own, but is more extreme in its social structure and in the power of its corporations. The scientist’s acts are not only a product of this society, they are also a defiance against it.   

Sometimes progress is only a broken promise, when science fails at preventing a disaster. In his novel “The Scarlet Plague” (1926) Jack London describes an extremely deadly hemorrhagic epidemic that destroyed all of humanity’s achievements and civilization. Decades after the disaster, one of the survivors, who once was a literature professor, tells his feral descendants about the fall of a glorious culture, who couldn’t care less about the subject. Through his description of the collapse of social systems, London criticized the weaknesses of human culture and the barbarism lurking around the corner. 

ברוס ויליס בסרט "12 קופים" | קרדיט: פריים מתוך הסרט של Universal Pictures

Sent back to the present to find the person who unleashed the plague that destroyed most of humanity. Bruce Willis in “12 Monkeys” | Source: a frame from Universal Picture film 

What is likely to happen: Diseases have accompanied us since the dawn of humanity, and when people began trading or fighting with people from other settlements they infected one another and thus epidemics were created. As early as the middle ages there were already epidemics that managed to infect people in large parts of the world. Such was, for example, the most famous epidemic - the Plague, also called “The Black Death”  at the time.  

The disease, caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis, which are transmitted by fleas, began in East Asia and traveled west to Europe through trade and shipping, leaving behind it death and destruction. During the 14th century, the plague was estimated to have killed close to a third of Europe’s population and brought upon significant social changes. Nonetheless, even the black plague failed to kill everyone. Smallpox is also a disease which reaped havoc for years in many parts of the world and eradicated entire native communities in the American continent. 

Epidemics tend to erupt, spread quickly and fade away after a few months or years, until the next outbreak. In some cases such outbreaks leave a certain level of natural or genetic immunity in survivors. The first encounter with a disease is usually the toughest, since time is required for the immune system to learn the bacteria or virus. That is why Smallpox was so deadly to the Native American population, never before exposed to the virus, while the European invaders enjoyed a partial immunity against it. 

A total extinction due to an epidemic is highly unlikely, albeit possible. Such a ‘perfect’ epidemic will have to combine mass contagion with deadliness or severe infertility. As we have witnessed with the COVID-19 pandemic,, once mass contagion is detected, measures are taken to prevent further spread and to develop a vaccine, with the measures becoming increasingly severe the higher the damage caused by the disease causes. It would be difficult to infect the entire world without anyone noticing. 

A more dangerous scenario would be a deadly and highly contagious disease with symptoms that are manifested only months or years after the time of infection. An excellent example of this is the HIV virus, the causative agent for Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS), which results in death from immune failure long after infection, while Syphilis begins with a temporary gential skin ulceration that heals, but re-emerges in a third of those infected years later, in a much more violent and potentially fatal manner.  

A disease that could result in extinction doesn’t have to be deadly. Long term damage to the reproductive system will seemingly suffice to prevent the establishment of a future generation. An example of such a virus is Mumps, which, if contracted following puberty, causes testicle swelling  in one third of infected males, which, in rare cases, could result in infertility. A more effective virus utilizing a similar mechanism could allegedly endanger the continued future existence of all humanity. 

In order to limit the spread of diseases against which no available vaccines exist, social restrictions such as lockdowns, prevention of gatherings and airport closures, are being used. These measures greatly reduce the risk of transmission between humans, but what about diseases that use intermediaries that do not obey human laws? Flu and Coronavirus, for example, are diseases that have passed from animals to humans. Malaria, which kills hundreds of thousands of people annually, is transmitted by a mosquito bite.

It is thus theoretically possible to engineer an “end-of-the-world pandemic”, but that would be highly complicated. It will have to infect the entire human population, outsmart any efforts taken against it and be one hundred percent deadly, or at least prevent the human race from reproducing. Albeit possible as part of a science fiction story - it is highly unlikely in reality.

Bottom line: Potentially unpleasant, but something truly extreme has to happen for a disease to extinguish mankind.

One other thing:: We have not even mentioned Zombies.

 
 

ענן פטרייה שנוצר בעקבות הטלת הפצצה האטומית על נגסקי ב-9 באוגוסט 1945 | מקור: Science Photo Library

A global nuclear war will destroy a large part of humanity, but most will survive. A mushroom cloud formed by the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaky, on August 9th, 1945 | Science Photo Library

The Day of the Mushroom

Why the world will end:  Nuclear War

What we imagine: TThe nuclear bombs dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaky on August 6th and August 9th, 1945, stunned the world. The denstructive power of a single bomb was unfathomable. With the nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, it became abundantly clear to everyone that Doomsday is waiting just around the corner. Literature, cinema and other art forms were also quick  to express the fear of the bomb.  

Among the variety of post-apocalyptic books that expressed the fear of atomic warfare, “A Canticle for Leibowitz” by Walter M. Miller was particularly prominent. The book follows three separate periods of the development of human society following the destruction of civilization and its regrowth, until the next nuclear war, in a tragic cycle of self destruction. 

At the center of the three-part book is the order of the Monks of St. Leibowitz - a Jewish-American technician, a survivor of the bomb, who set up the order for the preservaiton of human knowledge in face of the survivors’ anti-scientific zeal. Miller thus significantly deviated from the familiar pattern of Cold War era books that sought to warn against the dangers of nuclear technology, weaving his warning into fascinating debates about fate, religion and morality.

What is likely to happen: A limited nuclear war, between two individual countries, is not likely to have serious global repercussions. Most victims would die from the heat and shockwave of the blasts themselves, or suffer from radiation sickness in the months that follow, in regions found near the sites of the explosions. Many others will die from the resulting indirect devastation, which will include famine, diseases and more. Such a war will undoubtedly cause immense suffering to the people involved, but there is no chance of it destroying humanity.  

A global nuclear war is a far more dangerous scenario for mankind, though it remains unlikely that all of humanity, or even most of it, will die as a result. Thousands of operational nuclear warheads exist all over the world, but these are also likely to constitute the main targets for attack in the case of a nuclear war, and are thus likely to be destroyed before even being  deployed. In the war itself hundreds of millions, but not billions, are likely to perish, in addition to severe damage to infrastructure.

 
 

צינורות השיגור של טילי טריידנט על הצוללת האמריקאית אוהיו | צילום: US AIR FORCE / SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

There are currently thousands of operational nuclear warheads in the world. Launch tubes of Trident rocket on the American battleship Ohio | US AIR FORCE / SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

In addition, many cities, even large cities, will be saved from destruction. The countries involved would carefully select their targets and focus on targets that are expected to provide the greatest military or moral benefits, such as New York, London, Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. It is reasonable to assume that entire countries and maybe even continents would not be affected at all. For example, no country in the southern hemisphere is in possession of  nuclear weapons. It is likely therefore that there will be no attacks on South America or Sub-Saharan Africa, since the fighting armies would direct their weapons at more significant targets.

If we take the entire global nuclear arsenal and use it to kill as many people as possible, we will indeed be able to destroy a significant percentage of our planet’s population. However, such systematic use would be very different from how a nuclear war would look like in practice. The planet itself would not be significantly harmed either - it survived strikes that held much more energy than that stored in all of the existing nuclear weapons combined.  

The situation after the war will be dire: a global shortage of food, gas and transportation to the affected areas is expected. Many will die from famine and diseases, maybe even billions. However, most of humanity will still survive. Since there will be regions that will not be attacked, we will probably be able to restore human culture and preserve most of the scientific and technological knowledge. There may be climate changes, but it remains unclear how significant they will be. Even in the case that they do occur, humans have survived more extreme changes in the past. 

Finally, nuclear fallout from the bombs would not pollute the entire world with radioactive radiation at a level that is not compatible with life, but only small regions of it. It is likely that people exposed to radioactive substances near blast sites will suffer from radiation sickness, but people in more distant areas are only expected to experience a slight rise in the frequency of malignant tumors. 

Bottom line: It is unlikely that even a great deal of bombs could completely destroy humanity. Nevertheless, one bomb is already too many. 

One other thing:: The 1986 animation film “When the Wind Blows” shocked the world when it displayed a nuclear war through the eyes of an elderly British couple. Keep your handkerchief at reach.

When the Skies Fall

Why the world will end: An Asteroid Impact

What we imagine: According to the current paradigm, the extinction of the dinosaurs and of many other species at the end of the Cretaceous period was caused by a huge asteroid impact, which smashed into the Yucatán Peninsula in today’s Gulf of Mexico. Our solar system is full of pieces of rocks and ice, some of which could end up on a collision course with the Earth. Sooner or later one of them is bound to hit us. 

The 1998 disaster movie “Armageddon” followed a similar scenario. The plot focuses on a team of oil well drillers sent on a last minute space shuttle mission to blow up a giant asteroid headed for Earth, using an atomic bomb. They must split the asteroid into two pieces at just the right moment, for it to miss the earth. Following multiple challenges and sacrifices they complete the mission, at the last moment, naturally, saving the Earth.

What is likely to happen: According to the B612 Foundation, a scientific institute that aims to protect the Earth from asteroid impacts, named after the Little Prince’s imaginary asteroid, “There is a one hundred percent chance of earth being hit by a devastating asteroid, but we are not a hundred percent sure when this is going to happen”.אסטרואיד פוגע בכדור הארץ | איור: Andrzej Wojcicki / Science Photo Library

An asteroid impact eradicated much of the life on Earth in the past, and it will do so again in the futute. Asteroid hitting the Earth | Image: Andrzej Wojcicki / Science Photo Library

Asteroids are among the most common celestial bodies in the solar system. Their size ranges from one meter to many kilometers, with smaller bodies being called meteoroids. Collision events between such objects with planets as well as with their moons, including Earth, occur routinely. Most asteroid and meteoroid collisions go unnoticed, since they are completely burned by friction with air, before they penetrate the atmosphere or before hitting the ground, and all that would be left is a trail of light called a “shooting star”. But if an especially large asteroid penetrates the atmosphere, we will encounter a completely different phenomenon.

Based on a study of ancient impact craters on the moon’s surface, astrogeologists estimate that during the last 600 million years the Earth was hit  by several tens of asteroids at least five kilometers long - a size likely to cause catastrophic events and mass extinctions. While multiple mass extinction events occurred during this time period, only the most recent one, which occurred about 65 million years ago and led to the extinction of dinosaurs, was found to be associated with a known asteroid collision event. The impact of the asteroid, which was estimated to be ten kilometers in diameter, is the best test case for understanding the dangers that such an event may entail.  

The impact occurred in the ocean, triggering massive tsunami waves that may have a height of 1500 meters and have spread through all of the world’s coasts. Due to the force of the collision, fragments of the asteroid, along with pieces of the Earth’s terrestrial crust, were thrown back into space and fell back on the surface, igniting fires that encompassed extensive areas, due to the heat generated by the friction of the fragments with the air. 

It is estimated that the intense pressure exerted by the collision on the Earth’s shell triggered massive earthquakes and extensive volcanic activity. The Deccan Traps - massive basalt plains in West India that covered an area of about 1.5 million square kilometers at their peak, have formed close to the time of the asteroid’s impact and might have been created by it. It is highly likely that the gasses and volcanic ash discharged into the atmosphere, combined with the smoke from the fires and with the dust dispersed by the strike, played a significant role in the great extinction. They are thought to have masked sunlight and created a prolonged volcanic winter.   

Several institutions currently operating around the world employ devices for the early detection of celestial bodies that travel near the Earth’s orbit and that may enter a collision course with the Earth in the future. If such body is detected in the future, several ways of dealing with it are available, including crushing it using a nuclear bomb, ramming it with a spaceship to divert it to a different trajectory, or towing it out of collision course by using the gravity of a spaceship traveling alongside it. 

The ancient history of the Earth demonstrates that catastrophic events that can result in an almost complete extinction of life on the planet, do occur from time to time. It also demonstrates, however, that some species will always survive and repopulate the recovering planet. The human race will be badly affected by such a catastrophe, and may indeed become extinct. But if one has to bet on a species that would be able to adapt quickly enough in order to face the new challenges, humans are ranking very high on this list.

Bottom line: Extinction events have occurred in the past and are thus likely to occur in the future, but the likelihood of this happening in our lifetime is low.

One other thing:: Rumor has it that NASA found at least 168 scientific mistakes in “Armageddon” - over one mistake per minute of film.  

שלט של פעילי "המרד בהכחדה" מזהיר שסוף העולם קרב | צילום: Victor De Schwanberg / Science Photo Library

The climate crisis will cause the deaths of many people and render entire countries uninhabitable. A sign by “Extinction Rebellion” activists, warning against the approcaching 'End of The World' | Image: Victor De Schwanberg / Science Photo Library

 

Warm… Warmer… Scalding

Why the world will end: Climate Change

What we imagine: The end of the world does not have to occur in a sudden apocalyptic disaster - sometimes it could sneak up on us, in a gradual and prolonged process that results in the Earth being uninhabitable.  

In cinematic science fiction, the collapse of Earth’s climate is often portrayed as an exposition for a plot centered around the search for new worlds in distant solar systems. Such, for example, is the movie “Interstellar”, by Christopher Nolan, which seems to be less interested in the end of the world, and more interested in physical and philosophical questions concerning the course of time, space and in the transmission of information by use of gravity. 

Surprisingly, although numerous such works depict an ecological holocaust, only a few linger to ponder on how this will actually occur. In fact, almost every literary or cinematic work that deals with an ecological apocalypse presents the post-apocalyptic world, with no dwelling whatsoever on the details. The assumption that our behavior will upon our doomsday seems so self-evident, that the details of what is really destroyed in such a scenario and how this occurs, do not really matter.

One of the few who tried to portray climate change as it happens was science fiction author Robert Silverberg, in his1990s book “Hot Sky at Midnight”. The book depicts a world experiencing a chaotic and unpredictable climate change, caused by human activity, which includes the melting of icecaps, severe earthquakes that lead to completely submerged Japan, regions in which the air becomes toxic, and dramatic shifts in political and financial structures. In short, Silverberg seems to have taken the difficulty of predicting climate change to the extreme.

What is actually likely to happen: If mankind continues to emit greenhouse gasses at the current rate, the common estimates are that by 2100 world temperature will rise by roughly four degrees Celsius. In such a world, humanity and all other living beings will have to deal with widespread ecological changes. Hurricanes will intensify, arid regions are expected to become even dryer, while humid regions are expected to experience increased precipitation and floods. The displacement of climatic zones would likely bring to the migration of species and of entire ecosystems around the globe, and to the extinction of those not quick enough to keep up with the changing climate or those ones that will encounter an impassable barrier. Extreme heat waves, which are already taking their toll on human lives, will multiply greatly, rendering entire countries uninhabitable

In the most extreme scenario, once we exhaust all of the available fossil fuels on Earth, average global temperatures are expected to rise by 6-9 degrees Celsius above the current levels by the year 2300, and likely stay at these levels until the beginning of the fifth millennium AD, at the very least. In such a hot world all of the ice caps and glaciers will melt. Sea levels will rise by about 70 meters and flood all coastal cities.

אגם נוצר במקום שבו היה פעם קרחון, גרינלנד | צילום: Vadim Petrakov, Shutterstock

In the most extreme global warming scenario, all the world's ice caps and glaciers will melt. A lake formed where a glacier once was, Greenland | Image: Vadim Petrakov, Shutterstock

The most significant disaster, however, is expected to occur in the oceans. Coral reefs, which are the richest habitats in the oceans, are particularly sensitive to rising water temperatures and may undergo coral bleaching and eventually die. Another consequence of the increase in carbon dioxide levels in the air and water is ocean acidification. The rise in acidity, which is already being felt, impairs the ability of organisms such as corals, molluscs and crustaceans to produce their calcareous skeleton, and could thus prove to be an extinction factor no less significant than rising water temperatures.

It is difficult to assess the full consequences of the loss of coral reefs, but they may change the world as we know it. Such a process will undoubtedly reduce the biodiversity in the oceans and may even also cause famine in certain countries, since food obtained from the seas represents one fifth of human protein intake. Such severe warming is expected to reduce the land areas capable of sustaining human populations, though it is probable that some regions around the world will remain hospitable and could serve as refuge, albeit for small populations, to survive the centuries that will pass until the climate cools down again.

The obvious path to preventing such scenarios is to immediately stop all human induced greenhouse gas emissions. However, in the current situation this step alone will not suffice, since the full effect of the carbon dioxide that has already been emitted into the atmosphere has not been fully realized yet. It is estimated that in order to reduce global warming, active measures for removal of carbon from the atmosphere by climate engineering will be inevitable. 

Bottom line: The process is already being clearly felt, but much will depend upon humanity’s readiness to face it and its efforts in stopping it.

One other thing: In spite of a widespread scientific consensus that the world is becoming warmer, there are still climate change deniers who refuse to acknowledge this reality. הלבנת אלמוגים באזור איי טואמוטו | צילום: Reinhard Dirscherl / Science Photo Library

It is difficult to assess in full the consequences of the loss of coral reefs as a result of climate change. Coral bleaching near the Tuamotus islands | Image: Reinhard Dirscherl / Science Photo Library

The Chilling Effect

Why the world will end: A New Ice Age

What we imagine: The movie “The Day After Tomorrow” (2004) describes a situation that at first glance may seem paradoxical: global warming led to a sudden ice age that hit the entire northern hemisphere, and especially Western Europe and North America. As is customary in disaster movies, only one scientist foresaw the impending catastrophe, when the melting of polar ice caps resulted in the stopping of the gulf stream and neutralization of its warming effect on land, but no one was willing to listen to him until it was too late and extreme frost waves destroyed all of humanity’s achievements.   

A similar scenario was proposed in the 90’s by science fiction authors Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, and Michael Flynn in their book “Fallen Angels”. In this scenario the reason for the sudden ice age is not a natural event, but a political one. Holding a conservative agenda that denies the existence of global warming, they described a situation in which the domination of the green agenda on politics led to the employment of extreme measures to prevent global warming, which resulted in rapid cooling and climatic disasters. This constitutes a perfect mirror image of the global warming theory, which at the time of the writing of the book had significantly less supporting evidence for its existence than that available today. 

What is likely to happen: The emergence of a frost wave as a result of global warming may be counterintuitive, but the scenario depicted in “The Day After Tomorrow” relies on real climatic mechanisms. In reality, climate researchers have been warning concerning the possibility of dramatic changes occurring in these climatic mechanisms for many years. 

The Gulf Stream carries warm water from the tropical region of the Gulf of Mexico, follows north along the eastern coastline of the United States and Canada continuing east towards Northern Europe. This warm water stream enables the relatively convenient climate, enjoyed by Northern European countries, compared, for example, to frozen Alaska, which is situated on the same geographic latitude. As the Gulf Stream approaches Greenland, in the North Atlantic Ocean, its water cools, increasing in density and sinking down to the depths of the ocean, joining the global ocean current system, which the upper Gulf Stream forms part of. 

Currently, global warming is particularly strong at the Earth’s poles, due to their tendency to heat up faster than other parts of the planet. As a result Greenland’s massive ice cap is thawing rapidly and the fresh water flowing from the ice dilutes the salty ocean water and reduces its density, slowing the rate at which water from the Gulf Stream sinks to the bottom of the ocean. This is indeed one of the major processes affecting the speed of the Gulf Stream, and consequently, the rest of the Global Conveyor Belt - the system of ocean currents transporting water around the world.

ניו יורק מוצפת וקפואה | מקור: כרזת הסרט "היום שאחרי מחר" שהפיצה פוקס המאה ה-20

Global warming could result in an ice age. New York flooded and froze | Source: Poster of the film “The Day After Tomorrow” by 20th Century Fox studio. 

Indeed, a study conducted in 2018 found that the flow rate of the Gulf Stream has diminished by 15 percent since the beginning of the 20th century. The implication is that less heat energy reaches the North Atlantic, and some experts have already linked it to the extreme frost waves that have hit the countries situated in this region. Studies that have reconstructed the climate that prevailed on Earth in the distant past, found that during the last glacial period several alternating cycles of extreme climate changes have occured and were likely caused by a significant weakening and possibly even a complete halt in ocean current circulation. These changes likely resulted from melting of the large polar ice caps. 

However, in contrast to the fictional scenarios, ice ages and cessation of ocean currents do not occur overnight, but are rather slow and protracted processes. Numerous studies are being conducted regarding the effects of global warming on ocean currents and the resulting climate changes. It is difficult to obtain a conclusive overview of such complex systems, but most researchers agree that the warming results in the weakening and slowing down of ocean currents. If the current trend continues, it appears that significant climate changes will force us to adapt to a slightly different world. It is also possible that we will see significant cooling of certain regions. 

As a result of these changes, mankind will suffer food shortages and migration waves from the frozen regions, but it will survive. Modern humans, as well as their hominin ancestors, have survived cyclical periodic glacial periods that have occurred repeatedly in the recent hundreds of thousands of years. Estimates show that the global human population has  indeed shrunk at the peak of past glacial periods, but plenty of regions maintained a relatively convenient climate, particularly those found near the equator.

The bottom line: We do not know what is the probability of a new ice age, but even if it approaches there will be plenty of time to prepare.

One other thing: From the 14th century to the middle of the 19th century, the northern hemisphere and possibly the southern hemisphere, have undergone a ‘Little Ice Age’ -  a period of regional cooling of strong winters and spread of glaciers, which lasted for several centuries. 

 
 

"ניצחון המוות" (~1446), פלרמו, פרסקו מאת אמן לא ידוע | צילום: Mehau Kulyk / Science Photo Library

Everyone dies in the end. “The Triumph of Death” (~1446), Palermo, fresco by an unknown artist | Image: Mehau Kulyk / Science Photo Library

The Disasters that Did Not Happen

Is the end of humanity really nigh? So far all dark predictions have been disproven - otherwise we would not be here to predict again and again the coming of the inevitable apocalypse. We have survived the fatal prophecies of the end of the first millenium and a host of other occasions in which numerous Christians gathered for rallies of atonement and forgiveness. We have also survived the inevitable doom foreseen for 2012, with the completion of the ancient Aztec calendar.  

Humans were not only scared of arbitrary and symbolic dates, but also of actual events. In 1910, when Haley’s comet passed near the Earth, astronomer Camille Flammarion warned that the comet was about to set the Earth’s atmosphere ablaze and eradicate all life on it. Fortunately, his predictions were proven wrong. On September 10th, 2008, there were those who, due to an erroneous understanding of physics, predicted that the activation of the LHC particle accelerator, in the CERN compound in Geneva, would create a black hole that would devour the Earth

Other doomsday prophecies have been thwarted by proper preparations by mankind, or by a combination of proper preparation with unrealistic assumptions. A particularly famous example is the prophecy by English philosopher and economist Thomas Malthus, who predicted in 1798 that future food production rates will be unable to catch up with the growth rate of Earth’s human population and many would die of starvation. In practice, although Malthus was able to correctly envision processes that occurred before his time, he could not foresee the advanced agricultural methods and genetic plant breeding that have so far mankind to produce enough food for a huge population of roughly eight billion people. And yet, no one promises that we will be able to prevent famine forever. And finally, the “Y2K bug” - the prediction of a potential technological collapse due to a computer error that did not take the turn of the millennium into account - was probably prevented by a large investment in software updates, or simply due to the fears being exaggerated.

Naturally, this does not mean that we can be complacent. Disasters have plagued humanity throughout its history, with some even wiping out entire populations in terrible wars, famine and disease. All we can do is try to prevent man-made disasters, prepare for threats posed to us by nature, and hope that we do not get to witness during our lifetime the one apocalyptic disaster which we could not foresee or prevent.