How to Destroy the World

Pripyat_-_Bumper_carsSome say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
–Robert Frost
Suppose you’re a supervillain and you want to destroy the world. Or you’re a post-apocalyptic science fiction writer and you need to come up with an apocalypse. Or maybe you’re a survival nut and want to know which end is most inevitable so you know what to prepare for. There are so many ways to choose from, it can be hard to decide! Here’s a brief run-down of doomsday scenarios, sorted by category.

Human Induced Apocalypses

The world has been around for a very long time, and it will probably still be here long after humans are gone. Unfortunately, the greatest threat to our survival is ourselves. In the doomsday version of clue, man vs man is the most likely suspect.

A radioactive sign hangs on barbed wire outside a café in Pripyat.

A radioactive sign hangs on barbed wire outside a café in Pripyat.

Nuclear Warfare

They say that there’s enough nuclear firepower on Earth now to destroy it three times over. While this is a slight exaggeration it is true that the radioactive fallout would probably eliminate a substantial portion of the world’s population, causing widespread hunger and death. A few pockets of people would probably be protected though, and they would be left to rebuild a society with more intelligence.

A common misconception regarding the nuclear doomsday scenario is that the earth itself will become radioactive and uninhabitable. The actual blast sites may remain “hot” for some time but areas that are affected by fallout will be safe in a matter of weeks or months once the radioactivity dissipates into the air.

StateLibQld_1_104332_Women_wearing_surgical_masks_during_the_influenza_epidemic,_Brisbane,_1919

Biological Warfare

Another common fear and science fiction literary device is that of biological warfare. Chemicals used in the trench warfare during World War I offer a real life example of what can be done with modern science, and serve as a reminder of why biological warfare is considered a war crime. The advent of super viruses such as the flu epidemic of 1918 spread fear of a man-made disease that would have no cure. Environmental contaminants are also a source of concern–when the ecological system of Earth is sufficiently upset it can cause bizarre weather incidents like acid rain, which can be extremely devastating to life on earth.

There’s another aspect of biological and chemical warfare, however, probably the most imaginative form of apocalyptic fiction. From novels such as “I Am Legend” to films such as “World War Z” people have been worry about zombies and vampires roaming the earth after we are gone. These undead are the victims of brutal super viruses which kill and then resurrect in the form of a brain-or-blood eating monster.

Natural Disaster

While humans are their own worst enemy, it’s a big universe and there are a lot of things to be scared of. Earth is the only living planet that scientists have been able to find, but there is massive speculation that there was once life on other worlds; worlds that are now dead. What happened to them could happen to us, and so here is a list of the most common causes of death not caused by mankind.

Barringer_Crater_aerial_photo_by_USGS

Meteor/Asteroid Strike

The pockmarked surface of the moon bears testament to the heavy bombardment that the solar system suffered in the early days of it’s formation. While things are fairly calm now, there’s still a huge amount of stray space rocks that occasionally come hurtling towards the Earth. Many of these are burned up in the atmosphere, most are too small to make much of an impact, but occasionally one knocks us off our feet and reminds us what threats lurk beyond the blue sky. The most recent meteor strike was Chelyabinsk Meteor which struck in Russia on February 15, 2013. It shattered glass in the windows of six cities, causing over 1,500 injuries. It is 20 metres in diameter (66 feet) and weighs more than the Eiffel tower. If a larger meteor, comet, or asteroid suddenly collided with earth it could result in mass extinctions, earthquakes, and famine. An asteroid measuring six miles across is generally credited with the extinction of the dinosaurs about sixty-five million years ago. This has led to the implementation of asteroid detection systems in hopes that we can deflect any potentially life threatening near-earth-objects before they have a chance to strike.

Giant_prominence_on_the_sun_erupted

Supernova

All life depends on the warmth of the sun’s rays, perfectly situated at precisely the right distance for a hospitable climate. But the sun is just another one of the millions of billions of stars in the universe, and we have telescopes sufficiently advanced to track the birth and death of stars across the ages. From this information scientists have been able to predict when, and how, our sun will die. It will expand, becoming a red giant, and engulfing most of the inner planets before shrinking back down to dwarf star or planetary nebula. Fortunately this isn’t due to happen for about five billion years, so if that’s the only threat to humanity we’ll be long gone colonizing the stars.

Ice_age_fauna_of_northern_Spain_-_Mauricio_Antón

Ice Age

Long before the sun expands and swallows the planet, the planet itself will freeze out all life. Earth has had massive weather cycles in the past, going from hot to extreme cold, and back again. The last major ice age was 10,000 years ago, and many geophysicists believe that we’ve overdue for the next one. Ice ages are caused by a combination of climate change and sun spot activity and about the only thing that people can agree on about them is that they’re not survivable.

Regardless of whether or not the ice age comes gradually or all at once, the colder weather will result in a shorter growing period, causing food shortages and famine. As the casualties begin to mount, the global infrastructure will break down. Modern standards of living will be sacrificed to the quest for food, clothes and shelter, which will be increasingly difficult to find as the resources continue to diminish and the demand to increase. Population will continue to shrink to match the dwindling supply. And if it gets cold enough, people could die out altogether.


Katie Lynn Daniels is the author of Supervillain of the Day, and the mastermind behind Vaguely Circular. She blogs about science and things that are peripherally related to science. You can read all her posts here.


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