Everyone has heard the horror stories involving supervolcanoes exploding in the near future or meteor impacts and asteroid-Earth collisions one day wiping out all terrestrial life on Earth, but what about the potential disasters few people talk about over drinks at a bar? The lesser publicized end of the world scenarios? And just how realistic are they actually? (I know some of you have been on my case about Nibiru, but that is 100% mythical. I’ve already addressed this issue). Here’s a short but sobering list of some recent cataclysmic causes of the end of the world I heard about recently. Some sound more probable than others, but all are morbidly fascinating.
Verneshots – realistic, but unlikely to end the world
In the event that a volcanic eruption is caused by a phenomenal buildup of gas, particularly carbon dioxide, deep beneath the surface of the earth, a hefty volume of rock and life-seeking missiles of geological material could be launched into the air. It is possible that the gas could be pressurised enough to force the rock from the crust and mantle into what’s known as a sub-orbital trajectory. This is when the path of the object passes through the atmosphere of the Earth but does not go high enough to escape the gravitational pull of the Earth entirely. The rock will plummet back to Earth, possibly reaching terminal velocity, depending of course on the altitude achieved and the weight and volume of the rock etc. Still exceptionally hot from the volcano it was just spat out from, this will result in a fire and brimstone situation involving molten rock falling from the sky and hitting the Earth at cataclysmic speeds.
Verneshots have been associated with mass extinction events in the Earth’s history, with Geologists noting definitive evidence of hyper-velocity impact events. If the volcanic eruption is large enough the verneshots could be globally dispersive.
It’s not all doom and gloom however, although the less destructive alternative isn’t terribly comforting. Smaller verneshots have been documented for centuries. More recent ones include minor rock eruptions noted in Taiwan in 1999 and 2003 following earthquakes in the region.
That just warms the cockles of my heart, and everyone loves warm cockles.
Strangelets – Not entirely improbable, but probably won’t lead to the end of the world. Probably.
When it comes to subatomic particles causing the end of the world the stereotypical culprits fingered are generally the physicists working with the CERN super-collider in Switzerland. The Large Hadron Collider is a particle accelerator that slams highly energized subatomic particles (quarks, leptons, bosons, protons etc) together at nearly the speed of light. The LHC condenses enough energy to move a Boeing 767 at 322 kph (200 mph), should it so wish, splitting these particles apart to reveal their innards.
The purpose of the LHC collisions is to help answer some of the fundamental open questions still looming in physics. These concern the deep structure of space and time, the intersection of general relativity and quantum mechanics where current theories and knowledge are vague or break down altogether, and the basic laws governing the interactions and forces among the elementary particles, particles thought not to be comprised of smaller particles, making them potentially the building blocks of the universe. The LHC is designed to recreate the conditions of the universe a fraction of a second after the Big Bang.
There were the inevitable naysayers and doom prophets clamouring at the gates of knowledge at the start of this monumental exploration. There were fears that causing particle collisions at such high velocities would generate result in a black hole forming on Earth. Although the creation of miniature black holes is a possibility, it is not a catastrophic one.
LiveScience: Black Holes Won’t Destroy the Earth
Universe Today: The LHC Won’t Punch a Hole in the Earth After All
Wikipedia: Safety of Particle Collisions at the Large Hadron Collider
Astrophysicist Phil Plat, Bad Astronomer blog: No, the LHC Won’t Destroy the Earth
Part of this concern is the creation of hypothetical particles known as strangelets (“strange matter”). These particles consist of various types of quarks, elementary particles and fundamental constituents of matter, and would be potentially unstable. Entertaining apocalyptic sites such as CERN Truth say scientists confirm a 70% possibility that strangelets would be created in the collisions. However, this creation, though probable, would not mean the end of the world. Strangelets would not be strong enough to rip the Earth apart.
A strangelet could remain stable outside of the intense pressure which created it, making it theoretically possible for strangelets of sizes all the way down to the atomic scale to exist. It is further suggested that the gravitational field of a microscopic strangelet would be enough to absorb anything it comes into contact with, turning it into more strange matter, a really dense phase of matter theorised to form at the center of highly pressurised, massive neutron stars.
However, evidence of the existence of strange matter is sparse at best, and even if a strangelet was stable enough to survive in a stable condition outside of its pressurised origins, the possibilities of it being created by the LHC are practically zero.
Global Dimming – Very possible, but less dramatic
Between Al Gore and Google everyone should know about Global Warming at this stage. It’s an ongoing scientific battle between climate scientists and climate denialists. Well, here’s something new to add to the mix, just in case the debate wasn’t complicated enough.
Global dimming is quite self-explanatory. Essentially, whether by a large Earth impact or supervolcanic eruption, enough material such as dust and ash would be spat into the atmosphere to limit the amount of sunlight reaching the Earth, in turn effecting the Earth’s temperature and resulting in Global Cooling. This effect can already be seen in smaller doses in parts of the world heavily impacted by pollution.
These pollutants would result in acid rain, destroyed agriculture, eroded landscapes, and drought.
On the temperature side of things though, scientists have been looking to global dimming in some instances to offset global warming, but this would only treat the symptoms, not the illness, leaving a host of dangerous issues to continue to plague the planet.
Gammy-Ray Bursts – If it happens, we’re screwed
Gamma radiation is a type of electromagnetic radiation of a high frequency. Electromagnetic radiation (EMR) is a form of energy which exhibits wave-like behaviour as it travels through space. EMR has both electric and magnetic field components.
Gamma-ray busts (GRBs) are, as the name clearly states, bursts of gamma rays which exhibit as flashes to observers. They are extremely energetic explosions and have been observed in distant galaxies. They are the most luminous electromagnetic events observed in the universe and can last from ten milliseconds to several minutes, followed by a longer-lived aferglow emitted at longer wavelengths (X-ray, ultraviolet, optical, infrared, micro, and radio).
GRBs are the most destructive force in the universe, making supernovas look like firecrackers in comparison. They can destroy everything in their paths for hundreds to potentially thousands of light years away.
First detected in the late 1960s, GRBs are nothing rare and are identified at a rate of around one each day. Essentially emitted from exploding stars they are associated with supernovas. It is currently speculated that they could also be associated with black holes, which are capable of releasing high pressure and energy in a jet that in turn creates shock waves leading to the formation of Gamma Rays. It’s also been postulated by recent simulations that merging neutron stars could lead to shorter bursts of Gamma Radiation.
Because of the deadly force of GRBs, if a neighbouring star ever collapsed and Earth was in the path of a Gamma Ray jet, the planet would not stand a chance. GRBs have been linked to mass extinctions on Earth before. 440 million years ago over 100 families of marine invertebrates died out, making it the second most devastating extinction even in our planet’s history, caused because of a GRB just a few thousand light years away. GRBs are unimaginably powerful, releasing 10 quadrillion (a one followed by 16 zeros) times as much energy as the Sun. At 1,000 light years away a GRB would be as bright as the Sun to our eyes , despite being further away than most of the stars visible on a clear night.
Earth’s atmosphere would serve as an initial protective shield from the radiation, but the radiation would cook the atmosphere and destroy the ozone layer through the creation of nitrogen oxides. With the ozone layer gone ultraviolet rays from the Sun would hit the surface of the Earth at full force, causing skin cancers and annihilating instantly vulnerable lifeforms such as photosynthetic plankton. More nearby GRBs would result in boiling the oceans and vaporizing the atmosphere entirely.
Luckily all GRBs observed so far have been extremely distant, primarily observed in other galaxies. This, however, does not cross out the possibility of one ever occurring in our neighbourhood.
Quantum Zeno Effect – Wtf science?
Chad Orzel, in his book How to Teach Physics to Your Dog, discusses something called the Quantum Zeno Effect.
The Quantum Zeno Effect states that when you observe an unstable particle continuously it will never decay. In the realm of Quantum Physics and the confusing hunt for the ever-elusive dark matter, there is the probability that if dark matter is ever directly observed for a continous period of of time this simple act of observance will shorten the life of the universe.
This article is not yet peer-reviewed, and if it wasn’t by renowned physicist Prof. Lawrence Krauss this probably would not even be discussed in much depth, but it still makes for some interesting end of the world speculation.
It’s complicated, and even scientists are baffled by the goings on with dark matter. Basically (and I can’t emphasise this act of simplification enough), by observing dark matter we could cause it to collapse and take the entire universe with it.
I hope that when scientists hold the press-conference announcing their discovery of dark matter they hold up a massive banner saying, “DEATH OR GLORY!”