We've all spent a little time obsessing about the end of the world (or maybe a lot of time). But are your apocalyptic thoughts based in reality, or fed by pop culture fantasies? Here are nine myths about how the apocalypse will happen.
Top image: Dino Riders.
It's not unreasonable to worry that Earth might be hit by an asteroid. We're hit by large rocks from space roughly every 20 million years, and the last one struck 65 million years ago — leading to the mass extinction that took out most of the dinosaurs. So we're due for another one. But even a large asteroid strike won't wreathe the planet in fire, cooking everyone. Instead, it would punch a hole in the atmosphere, spreading debris into space and setting off a nuclear winter. Temperatures would plummet, and remain low for at least a decade. Then things would heat up into a super-greenhouse, making things uncomfortable for everyone.
Nope. In fact, humans share many traits with survivor species like sharks, whose ancestors lived through great adversity and several mass extinctions for a few simple reasons. One, they have a large population that can live almost anywhere — just like humans. And they can eat almost anything, including garbage — again, just like humans. It's actually more likely that humans will evolve into a new species than that we will die out. Image: I Am Legend concept art
Mass extinctions are the worst disaster that can befall life on Earth, with over 75 percent of species going extinct. And they are almost always caused by climate change. But mass extinctions usually take about a million years — the shortest one is estimated to have taken on the order of 100-200 thousand years. So climate change could make things really horrible in the next century, leading to famines and superstorms. But a mass extinction will take a lot longer than that.
Actually, it will. Most mass extinctions are caused by climate change. They are often precipitated by disasters like massive outpourings of lava from volcanoes, or an asteroid hitting the planet. But the real damage comes from all the ash, toxins, and carbon that gets loaded into the atmosphere, plunging the planet into an era of superheating or supercooling.
Let's think about a few of the biggest threats to humanity. If you were naming some of the biggest, they would probably include famines, disasters like earthquakes and floods, pandemics, asteroid strikes, and storms can be predicted in advance. We can even predict climate change. So very likely to be wiped out by something we don't see coming. Which means that we can start doing our disaster preparations now, and have a better chance of survival.
If every member of Homo sapiens died tomorrow, the planet would still suffer from war (between ants, chimps, and dolphins, among other species). And it would still undergo periods of climate change where the world enters greenhouse phases and ice age phases that kill off many species. We aren't the only destructive creatures ever to live, and we aren't likely to be the last. The world might actually be pretty much the same place without us, albeit with fewer Starbucks and reality TV shows.
As Nobel laureate Amartya Sen demonstrated in his landmark study of famines, these events are not natural. They are caused by problems with economic resource allocation, where food prices skyrocket and the poor are unable to buy sustenance. Famines are the most unnatural event that could befall humanity, and humanity can prevent them too.
Though it would be a horrific disaster and many lives would be lost, there is a simple way to protect yourself from radiation. Go underground. Just a few feet of rock is enough to protect you from high energy cosmic radiation. Is a nearby supernova frying off the top layer of Earth's atmosphere? Get into a subway tunnel, mine, or cave. It's true you might have to live there for a while, but after the worst of the radiation bombardment is over you could go outside in protective gear for short periods to gather food. It would be tough, but it's possible to survive. Indeed, it's even possible that a similar radiation disaster hit the Earth about 450 million years ago, and creatures in the deep sea survived because the water blocked radiation. Image via NASA.
Zombies are not real. So you only have to worry about them as a menace in bad movie sequels and TV shows that outlast their awesomeness.
If you want to know more about potential apocalypses and how we can actually survive them, you can learn more in my new book, Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction.
Also, I'll be on book tour this month! You can also see me in tonight in Washington DC, taking part in Slate's Future Tense Happy Hour. That's followed by appearances in Seattle, Chicago, Atlanta, Phoenix, San Francisco, and Berkeley. Click here for dates and places!