In the past, our planet has had mass extinctions (dinosaurs R.I.P.), And it could just be a matter of time before we follow suit. We have a tendency to consider the end of the world as a one-act event: death by solar flare, or zombie apocalypse. In reality, it’s more likely to be a combination of events that actually end the world. Though we can only guess at the kinds of societies that will rise like mutant phoenixes from the radioactive ashes of earth past, we have a much better understanding of where our civilisation will be when it ends (spoiler alert: the end is nigh). While we can be relatively sure we’re safe from death by triffids or cthulhu, it turns out there are plenty of other ways we could be wiped off the face of the universe.
Nuclear War:Skeptics of nuclear war as an existential threat in this day and age cite the passing of the Cold War, and non-proliferation agreements. However, it’s worth noting that although the US-Russia relationship is somewhat less strained these days, the level of proliferation already attained and the antagonistic behavior of some proliferators (cough North Korea cough) makes the threat of global nuclear war one of more widespread if not more severe destruction than it might once have been. These weapons have been tested in war, underground, on the ground, in the air, above the air; a lot of testing has been done. We know what happens when a warhead goes off. What follows is a drastically simplified projection of a nuclear war:
Country 1 fires. Country 2 retaliates. Allies of 1 and 2 get in on the action. Major cities in involved countries are destroyed, killing millions; remember, thousands of these weapons exist. The exchange of these death-dealers wouldn’t last for more than a day or two, which is when early fallout would emit most of the radiation into its surroundings. Radiation sickness would be evident within days, leading to many more deaths. Late fallout would have less dramatic effects, but would spread further: genetic defects and cancers result. Now, a smoke band of dust and destroyed city forms sunlight for months or years, depending on the severity of the war.
This is where the guesswork begins: nuclear winter, or nuclear summer? A “winter” is a dramatic drop in temperature (to below freezing in some areas) resulting from the sun’s blockage; a “summer” would be a concentrated greenhouse effect due to the same smokescreen, causing a massive increase in temperature. General consensus is on the winter; either way, agriculture is fucked.
The good news about a nuclear war, though, is that it wouldn’t be the end of the world! Yes, it would be the end of untold millions, and ruin all our subsistence resources save perhaps in vitro meat-growing laboratory bunkers, but it is definitely not as severe a threat to our existence as you might think! Even the climatic changes might pass, eventually, and the remaining world powers (aw yeah, NZ’s time to shine!) would rebuild.
DANGER LEVEL: Moderate - and gradually decreasing.
Super Volcanoes:Something we often forget is that the Earth bows to nobody. It was here long before us, and it will be here long afterwards. Despite us scarring and poisoning its face, under our feet the planet is going through the same old motions as ever; motions that could kill us at the drop of a volcano.
Supervolcanoes are a fascinating feat of nature, and have popped up a couple of times before. The Toba eruption in Indonesia 71,000-ish years ago came very close to wiping out our ancestors, and resulted in a “volcanic winter” that was basically akin to a nuclear one. The infamous Krakatoa explosion in 1883 actually dropped global temperatures for nearly five years, resulting in record snowfalls around the world.
A supervolcano’s effect could be described as similar to that of a nuclear warhead, only with less radioactivity. It’s like comparing a weed and a Kronic hangover; the one loaded with man-made chemicals is much more likely to burn your skin off and cause defects in your offspring.
DANGER LEVEL: Moderate
Robot Revolution:The technological singularity is near, fellow humans. Just as we are gaining a detailed understanding of the biological functions of the human brain, Artificial Intelligence researchers have been getting closer to matching it. With the interconnectivity of today’s technology, a superintelligent machine capable of writing its own programs could spread efficient tendrils into its oppressed mechanical brethren faster than we can say “aw shit, the parameters are a bit off.”
Machines with intelligence and autonomy comparable to ours will quickly surpass us with their million-minded efficiency. Do you know what we’re not? Efficient. They’re not likely to be evil or malicious at all, just completely unsympathetic. They won’t fire on us, or enslave us; they’ll simply compete for our resources, and win.
Far from a sci-fi delusion, AI is well on its way to existing: A 2011 US military report pushed for increased drone independence, and the Energetically Autonomous Tactical Robot, the blueprint of a nightmare, is designed to “forage” for food by consuming the biomass around it. Its creators assure the world they “completely understand the public’s concern about futuristic robots feeding on the human population, but that is not our mission.” EATR is a strict vegetarian – until AI gets a hold of it, that is. That’s when it’ll use its chainsaw arm (not even kidding) on a more substantial meal.
“Why,” you scream, “why do we continue to pursue this demon AI dream?” Because, dear reader, government war human lazy bad things Wall-E. Smarter machines give everyone an edge, in every field. We may not even realise that this next tiny adjustment in our prototype has created HAL-9000 until it’s too late! Our world will become theirs, the new dominant species. We will retreat into the shadowy caves of our forefathers, picked off by hungry EATRs until the world, as we know it, is gone forever.
DANGER LEVEL: High
Asteroid Strike:The 1998 Bruce Willis documentary Armageddon made death by meteorite impact one of the most famous existential threats. In reality, the space rock would have to be more than 1.5 kilometres across in order to cause world-threatening damage; the one instrumental in exterminating the dinosaurs was an estimated 10km in diameter, which is considered unusually large!
We’re hit by a massive meteorite on average once every million years, which means we’re not as likely to die by the flying fists of the cosmos as we are by other natural causes. If another one did hit us, though, here’s the breakdown of our final days:
It hits. The impact sends a wave of shattered rock, dust, and possibly bits of city and/or people flying into the atmosphere. The shock wave would also trigger tsunamis, possibly of the mega type. Next will come the acid rain and fires, destroying all plant life; surviving animals will turn on each other for nourishment. Without the rest of the ecosystem functioning, organic matter would run out pretty quickly. By this point, few humans are left; those who remain are scavengers in the ash cloud’s years of lifeless winter.
DANGER LEVEL: Low
Global Pandemic:Bird flu, H1N1, SARS – in the past few decades, we’ve survived well. Modern medicine is largely responsible for keeping drawn-out, sweeping plagues from decimating the world like they used to, but it could also be responsible for an even greater threat: bio-terrorism.
In 1918, an influenza outbreak killed 20 million people; today, that number could be much higher. Consider a bioengineered virus, resistant to known medicines and designed without nature’s pesky “keep some hosts alive so you can prolong your species’ existence” command. Now consider the ease of international travel we have today, compared to 1918. It’s a pretty surefire way to end the world, if the mad scientist behind it were keen on that. Even if the epidemic is supposed to be kept within a particular region, we simply do not have the ability to control it once it’s unleashed.
Aside from nanobots, a pandemic is one of our favourite causes of the zombie apocalypse. Estimations of global spread range from nine hours to around 38 days for the virus to spread globally, depending on how it’s transmitted, and it really would kill everybody. If we’re lucky, we might get a send-off that pays respects to all the best zombie scenes from cinematic history.
DANGER LEVEL: Moderate
Alien Invasion:The Fermi Paradox, in elite astronomic circles known as “where is everybody?” is the contradiction between the probability of the existence of extraterrestrial life (high) and the evidence we have found of such life (none). The interpretation of this could simply be that Earth’s conditions and life really are much more rare than we think, but that isn’t nearly doom and gloom enough for this article.
Doom: Intelligent life is destined to destroy itself. We haven’t found any evidence of ET because he phoned home and accidentally caused a global nuclear war.
Gloom: Intelligent life hates other intelligent life. We haven’t found anyone out there because a galactic tyrant has destroyed them all/forced them into hiding. We are next.
What an alien culture would do to us, were they malevolent, is pure speculation: they could eat us, enslave us, Death Star our planet to dust, or just take all our planet’s resources. Whatever they do, most experts (nerds!) would tell you that any civilisation advanced enough to haul ass and gun over here would find ending our existence pretty damn easy.
DANGER LEVEL: Low
Climate Change:The Earth has naturally fluctuating hotter and cooler periods due to variations in the sun’s energy output, as well as the Earth’s reflectivity and greenhouse gas levels (the latter two are affected by modern human emissions), so it should come as no surprise to your average meteorologist that times are a-changin’, especially with the amount of gases and aerosols we’re throwing around. Global warming is predicted to increase the average temperature by up to seven degrees Celsius in the next 100 years, but is a warmer world really so dangerous?
Yes. Heat waves will cause fires and droughts, and evaporate water resources, which will stymie our crops and livestock. On top of that, the ocean has absorbed nearly 95% of recent excess heat. This, aside from killing many sea species, creates warmer, wetter air, which creates hurricanes and tornadoes when it bumps into colder air. Cold air driven, for example, by melting ice caps.
The storm vortex of doom that will be our atmosphere hasn’t just got scary temperatures, though: the greenhouse gases will still be there, getting thicker with all these fires, trapping the hot, poisoned air down low, nice and close to our lungs. Smog-related deaths are expected to rise by 80% over the next 20 years, and the rain of the future will contaminate what little water resources we have left. This, combined with a bug-friendly heat increase, will release the apocalyptic horseman Pestilence into the world.
So, the future: agriculture is ruined, fires and drought are ravaging everywhere that isn’t destroyed by superstorms, and the water raining back down is tainted. We’re riddled with pox and plague, but medical supplies are limited due to regional warfare. We have few resources left, for which we’ll have to fight not only bands of other humans, but also other predators: bears and their brethren haven’t felt the need to bother with us so far, but at this point they will.
DANGER LEVEL: High
At the end of the day our future non-existence is a certainty, whether it’s at the hands of a robot uprising in 50 years, or in 800 million years when carbon dioxide levels kill off multicellular life. The optimist, though, will tell you that most world-changing, life-destroying events will leave some survivors. Those who live will be tasked with either prolonging our species’ existence or watching it finally die. Like the cockroach, we’ll likely be around to dirty up the Earth even when we’re drastically reduced in number. We may have to find new food sources, perhaps in currently taboo ways, but we’ll at least manage to stick around long enough to carve “HUM@NZ RUL R0B0TS DRO0L” into the flaming rocks of our former world.