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The End of What?

Entry 1277, on 2011-03-18 at 13:00:33 (Rating 3, News)

Recently there have been a lot of events around the world which have seemed more severe than what we are used to. Locally there were the Christchurch earthquakes, now there is the Japan earthquake followed by a tsunami and now a possible nuclear accident. There have been many extreme weather events too: record highs and lows in temperature, extensive flooding in Australia, etc. Plus there is the political turmoil in the Middle East which seems to be more widespread than it has been in the past.

So what does it all mean? I have heard a few people question whether it is some sort of sign of the end of the world. Of course the religious nutters have been predicting that for 2000 years and have zero credibility, but this is a less specific thought that some more moderate people seem to share.

But let's look at this sensibly. What do they actually mean by "the end of the world" anyway? Do they mean the planet itself is going to explode, or drift off into space, or be physically destroyed in some other way? Or do they mean life will be eradicated on the Earth so that it will seem like an end from that perspective? Or do they mean some sort of supernatural phenomenon might happen resulting in a change so huge it might seem like the end?

When you ask them they don't seem to know (apart from the religious nutters who mumble on about the second coming of Christ or some other nonsense). There's just this vague feeling of something bad rather than a specific idea of what will actually happen.

So first, there is no feasible mechanism which would result in the physical destruction of the planet. Even the Sun expanding into a red giant in 6 billion years won't totally destroy the Earth. Sure, it will fry it pretty badly, but that event is a long time away anyway and earthquakes and other events this year are clearly unrelated.

What about destruction of life? Once it got established life has survived an amazing range of disasters including ice ages, meteor impacts, super volcanoes, massive fires, and many others. The recent disasters, as bad as they were, barely even begin to compare with the global disasters of the past!

The worst global disasters resulted in 90% of species dying off, but those extinctions took a long time and were triggered by truly cataclysmic global events. A few earthquakes or floods don't seem to be very relevant compared with that.

I've already dismissed a supernatural event. There have been so many predictions of this sort in the past that it's barely worthy of even the slightest consideration. But let's give it that anyway. If a major supernatural event was about to happen would it be heralded by perfectly ordinary, although severe, natural events which already happen every year anyway?

What would be the point? If some god was trying to warn us that something big is about to happen why do it with events that just happen anyway? It seems a bit pointless really. I mean if there were multiple meteor strikes and the craters spelled out the word "repent" I might take it a bit more seriously but some earthquakes just seem to be part of the usual run of disasters we get every year.

So it seems to me that the end of the world is not, in fact, imminent. In fact the whole idea of "the end of the world" is actually quite meaningless... at least until we see something like that supernatural meteor message.

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Comment 1 (2869) by INRI on 2011-03-19 at 14:42:29:

Just to disabuse you on a technicality. An episode of Planet Science explains that when the sun's life comes to an end its expansion is projected to cause a drag on the earth's orbit which will decay enough so that it will be broken up by tidal forces and eventually fall into the remains of the sun. Admittedly this is a long way off.

Other scenarios looked at were being hit by a large meteorite or black holes. Small black holes didn't seem to do too much damage.

In an episode on plate techtonics they describe a pangea supercontinent forming and breaking up on a 250 million year cycle. This makes life very uncomfortable except around the edges.

Also on a 20,000 year cycle they explain a reversal in the earth's magnetic field. Without the protection of the Van Allen belts the radiation would have a significant effect on life. Given the apparent age of the earth life seems to have passed through many of these events.

So not diminish the distress of recent events mankind still has significant challenges to his survival and there will be an end one day.

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Comment 2 (2870) by OJB on 2011-03-20 at 09:06:01:

First, thanks for the comment. Those science-based "end of world" programs are really interesting.

I don't know whether the eventual fate of the Earth is entirely decided yet. Various theories have been suggested but it depends a lot on how much mass the Sun loses before it expands into the red giant phase.

Yes, meteor collision seems to be the most likely scenario for significant global damage but since this has happened several times before without the world ending I don't think that's quite enough.

Continental drift is an ongoing phenomenon which is an important driver of speciation. I can't see any way it could cause anything like an "end of world" scenario though.

Would magnetic field reversal lead to the loss of the Van Allen belts? The field is being reversed, not lost completely (maybe it gets weak at the time it switches over).

I totally agree there are big challenges to human civilisation and to life itself in the future. All I'm saying is that the literal "end of the world" is unlikely in any scenario and the recent events have nothing to do with any end of world which could theoretically happen.

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