How Will the World End? (10 Possible Apocalyptic Events)

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A Brief History

On May 21, 2011, Christian radio broadcaster Harold Camping had predicted that the world as we know it would end, with the return of Jesus Christ and the advent of the “Rapture,” followed by months of fire and brimstone resulting in the destruction of Earth. If you were paying attention on that date, you will note that the end of times did not in fact begin on May 21, 2011! Many people have predicted the end of the world or the end of the world as we know it, and so far, each has been wrong.  We previously discussed “10 Times People Predicted the End of the World (and Were Wrong!),” and today we will discuss different ways the World as we know it may come to an end, or at least either the end of the Human Race or of civilization.  Many different scenarios have been offered as the means by which an apocalyptic event will occur,.  All you have to do is watch the movies for a great sampling of all those scenarios!  Let us know if you are seriously stocking up on food, water, guns and ammunition after reading this article!

Questions for Students (and others): How do you think the World will end?  Will it take a “great extinction” event for Humans to disappear?  Will Humans be around long enough to colonize other planets?  Will the Cleveland Browns win a Super Bowl before the World ends???  Please let us know in the comments section below the article.

Digging Deeper

1. Nuclear war.

FEMA-estimated primary counterforce targets for Soviet ICBMs in 1990. The resulting fall-out is indicated with the darkest considered as lethal to lesser fall-out yellow zones.  Map by Quibik and Theshibboleth.

Not just any nuclear war, but a knock down, drag out total nuclear war where the US and its allies conduct a massive operation against Russia and vice versa, while China also gets involved.  The massive dust generated by thousands of nuclear explosions (let alone the radiation and blast effects) could create a “nuclear winter” that could cause mass famine across the Earth.  Infrastructure and transportation of foods and fertilizers and disruption of power grids and fuel production would cripple agriculture, ending civilization as we know it.  Would this scenario mean every single human would die?  Probably not, but civilized and industrialized areas would likely be ruined.  Scientists do admit a chance of the extinction of Homo sapiens in the event of a nuclear winter.  In the event of a total nuclear war, many millions of people would not die in the immediate blasts, even in the US, Russia, and other target nations.  Places such as South America and Africa might not get nuked at all but could still suffer the effects of nuclear winter and nuclear radioactive fallout.

2. Asteroid strikes Earth.

A major impact event releases the energy of several million nuclear weapons detonating simultaneously, when an asteroid of only a few kilometers in diameter collides with a larger body such as the Earth.  Illustration by Fredrik.

In this catastrophic scenario the Earth could be totally or nearly totally destroyed by the impact of a large asteroid.  Or a not quite as large asteroid could strike the Earth and produce an incredible quantity of dust in the atmosphere so that almost all life on Earth dies off due to lack of sunlight.  Something to this effect may have spelled doom for the dinosaurs and other large animals 65 million years ago.  How much warning we might have is hard to say, but almost assuredly not enough to take any effective counter measures.  If you are wondering, using nukes in space to destroy an asteroid would almost assuredly not work, nor would it be likely to change the asteroid’s path, although research into deflecting an inbound asteroid using a series of nuclear blasts has been contemplated.  If you are wondering, it would take an asteroid of about 6 kilometers or more in diameter to cause mass extinction on the Earth.  Newer technologies that could land some sort of thrusters on an asteroid may be developed in the future.  (Note: Blowing up an asteroid is not only hard to accomplish, the results could be catastrophic themselves, as the pieces may hit the Earth like a load of astral buckshot, creating devastation anyway.  Other scenarios have the asteroid that is blown up reforming before hitting the Earth.)

3. Asteroid strikes and destroys the Moon.

Full moon seen from North America.  Photograph by Gregory H. Revera.

In this scenario, a large asteroid strike on the Moon could spell the end of life as we know it by a couple of different ways.  First, the enormous dust cloud created might circle the Earth and block sunlight, resulting in an ice age and lack of photosynthesis.  All or almost all life on Earth could end just because of the dust.  Or major chunks of Moon and asteroid could hit the Earth, causing massive damage down here, maybe even resulting in more dust!  The absence of the Moon, even if the dust and debris did not kill us, could change the rotation of the Earth, perhaps inducing a wobble and mess up our seasons and day/night sequence, maybe even change our axis of rotation, causing a shift in where the poles of the Earth are.  Weather could change dramatically, and there would be no ocean tides, further affecting sea life and weather.  While scientists are not sure exactly what would happen, most seem to think it would not be beneficial to us, to say the least.

4. Global warming.

Global warming was the cover story in this 2007 issue of Ms. magazine

As the Sun ages, it gets hotter.  Thus, so does the Earth, so eventually Global Warming will kill us all, but probably not for a billion years or more!  The other type of Global Warming that Al Gore and others warn us about, that warming caused by human activity that increases “greenhouse gases” such as carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere, also has the potential to either kill us all some day or at least greatly change our way of life.  Melting polar ice and glaciers mean dramatic rises in sea levels, warmer air means more drought, more deserts, and reduced agricultural production.  As human numbers continue to rise (7.7 billion and counting, about 3 times as many people as when this author was born) more energy is needed, meaning more oil, gas and coal are burned.  Greater numbers of large farm animals such as cattle and pigs are grown to feed us, resulting in more methane and carbon dioxide produced naturally.  Meanwhile, the more land we clear of forests for people to live and work and to raise farm animals, including making roads, parking lots and other infrastructure that destroys green areas, the less plants there are to convert carbon dioxide back to solid form.  Overpopulation is the MAIN problem with human induced Global Warming, but politicians seem to ignore this fact and concentrate on reducing carbon emissions through “green energy” such as wind and solar power.

5. Ice Age.

An artist’s impression of ice age Earth at glacial maximum.  Art by Ittiz.

Unlike the nifty animated movies by the same name, an Ice Age is nothing to be entertained by.  The most recent one still allowed humans and large mammals to live, but previous Ice Ages would have precluded civilization as we know it.  Of the 5 known Ice Ages the World has gone through, the most severe resulted in all of North America covered in ice, often a mile or more thick!  Even the most recent edition caused sea levels to fall by 400 feet.  “Minor” periods of glaciation have occurred at least 12 times in the past million years, so even without humans messing up the environment, the Earth throws us some serious bad weather all on its own.   Obviously, any scenario in which the entire Earth except the Equatorial regions is covered with ice would drastically change things, and science is unlikely to come up with a solution to such a scenario.

6. Sun goes Super Nova.

The size of the current Sun (now in the main sequence) compared to its estimated size during its red-giant phase in the future.  Diagram by Oona Räisänen (User:Mysid) and User:Mrsanitazier.

Our Sun is a star, and eventually most stars go “super nova,” growing to enormous size in an instant like a giant flash bulb, and then collapsing on themselves.  Or, the star may instead gradually grow into a “Red Giant,” many times its original size and swallowing the planets that surround it, before burning out and collapsing on itself.  Either way, when this happens to our Sun, the Earth will become uninhabitable and will be eventually be totally destroyed.  (Note: The second scenario may be more likely.)  Long before the Earth is totally destroyed, the growing Sun would heat us up to the point where all life died anyway.  Scientists say we have around 7 billion years before this catastrophe happens, so please do not fret too much or scare your kids with tales of impending doom!

7. Global Pandemic.

The 1918–1919 “Spanish flu” pandemic resulted in dramatic mortality worldwide.

New diseases or new strains of old diseases have a way of cropping up, and sooner or later a real whopper might happen that devastates human life.  Some sort of AIDS/HIV type of disease might sneak up on us and destroy much of humanity before scientists have any sort of counter for the disease.  Look at the panic caused by the Ebola outbreak in recent years!  Should we experience a disease with an extremely high mortality rate and one that is easily passed between people, especially between animals and people, we could be in for a civilization ending event.  Sure, fiction is full of such scenarios, such as good old “Captain Trips” in the Stephen King story, The Stand, or the mysterious zombie causing virus on the television series, The Walking Dead.  Previous pandemics such as the Black Death in the 14th Century killed a third of Europe’s population.  Smallpox, Measles and Chicken Pox combined to nearly wipe out the Native American population of North America when Europeans brought their diseases to the New World.  Not only are as yet unidentified maladies out there in the world, viruses and other germs have a habit of evolving and mutating, perhaps to the point where we experience mass death.  Only 100 years ago, the Spanish Flu Pandemic killed as many as 100 million people across the globe.  Could this happen today?  You bet it can!  And then, there is the human factor in genetic modification of microorganisms that could potentially become a global catastrophe, along the lines of the previously mentioned Captain Trips or the Resident Evil games and movies.  This potential human meddling with nature could come as a misguided attempt to better the world, or as an effort to create a better biological warfare germ.  Another factor bedeviling doctors and researchers today are the various microbes that become tolerant of our antibiotics.  Certain types of bacteria defy antibiotic treatment, and the “flesh eating bacteria” have caused many horrible, crippling amputations and the like, even death.  The ultimate pandemic might be caused by some sort of alien germs our space probes bring back, although our rocket scientists do take precautions to prevent that scenario.  Still, it could happen… and we are not even counting an alien invasion!  A cautionary news event that should get your attention is the great pig die off in China, the world’s largest producer of hogs/pork (more than half the world’s total).  Of the 600 million pigs in China, an estimated 200 million are going to die!  The culprit is “a mysterious virus.”

8. Gigantic Volcanic Event(s).

Location of Yellowstone hotspot over time (numbers indicate millions of years before the present).  Map by Kelvin Case (talk).

Perhaps you have seen one of those scientific shows on television where they discuss the “Yellowstone Caldera,” an enormous sub-surface volcano that could someday blast open and destroy life on Earth.  Apparently such a cataclysmic volcanic event, or even worse, series of events, could spew toxic gasses into the atmosphere and choke all air breathing life.  Then the enormous amount of dust thrown into the atmosphere would possibly block out the sunlight we need to live, throwing the Earth into a deep freeze of an Ice Age.  Unlike the Sun burning out over billions of years, a volcanic catastrophe could occur almost any time, even within the next few decades.  While scientists might be able to detect a coming event and warn us, there is little humans could do to prevent an apocalyptic event.

9. Overpopulation creates famine and death, pollution, holes in the Ozone layer, etc.

A family planning placard in Ethiopia. It shows some negative effects of having too many children.  Photograph by Maurice Chédel.

Scary, scary numbers… The current human population of the Earth is 7.7 billion people, and many scientists estimate the maximum number of people the Earth can support is only 9 or 10 billion!  We are rapidly approaching that number.  What does this mean?  When we get to a certain point, there are so many people that produce so much pollution that our planet can no longer deal with it, and the air, water and land get increasingly toxic.  Global warming gets worse geometrically, and crowded conditions create greater potential for pandemics.  Fish populations in the oceans reach a tipping point where they rapidly decline and cannot recover, causing mass famine among humans.  Pollution kills aquatic corals and plant life, further damaging ocean food sources.  Nuclear accidents and toxic spills ruin more and more land and water, and the animal husbandry required to feed so many people puts further strain on the Earth.  Industrial pollutants in the atmosphere reduce our protective Ozone layer, resulting in high levels of UV radiation that cause animal and plant life to die.  Enormous aquifers used to irrigate crops (especially in the heartland of the United States) consist of water millions of years old, not water that can be replaced by rainfall on an annual basis.  The level of the water table is going down, down, down, to the point where the water will become too salty and loaded with minerals to be usable for farming or drinking.  A dustbowl scenario is coming based on expected droughts caused by global warming and climate change, and the poisoning of ground water certainly will not help the situation.  Nor will the using up of large aquifers.  When farmers seek ever more productive crop varieties, the genetic modification and hybridization of crop seeds results in crops that are so uniform that they become highly susceptible to different types of crop disease, creating a situation where we could experience such a mass crop disaster that we also experience global famine.  Too many people!

10. Wrath of God.

The End of the World, commonly known as The Great Day of His Wrath, an 1851–1853 oil painting on canvas by the English painter John Martin.

This last scenario requires that you believe in a Supreme Being that not only has the power to end human life on Earth, but also has the disposition to do so.  Using the common all-powerful model as our God, He could (or She could, if you prefer) just end things at a whim without having to go through any of the natural types of events such as asteroid strikes, catastrophic weather, volcanic eruptions or plagues.  For that matter, if a Supreme Being wanted to be done with us, why would He/She go through the charade of using a “natural” event to accomplish His/Her goal?  Then there is the religious idea of an Apocalypse, complete with the Rapture and all that.  Perhaps that very scenario will be what eventually happens, after all, hundreds of millions of people believe that.  Question for students (and subscribers): What scenario could cause a Supreme Being to tire of humans and end humanity?  Just how angry would God have to be?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Brannen, Peter. The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand Earth’s Past Mass Extinctions. Ecco, 2017.

Breining, Greg. Super Volcano: The Ticking Time Bomb Beneath Yellowstone National Park.  Voyageur Press, 2007.

Kolbert, Elizabeth. The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. Picador, 2015.

Moyer, Ellen. Our Earth, Our Species, Our Selves: How to Thrive While Creating a Sustainable World. Greenvironment Press, 2016.

The featured image in this article, a photograph by Eli the Bearded of a pickup truck with 2011 end times prediction message in San Francisco, California, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.


About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.