There are plenty of theories about how the world might end, but most have one thing in common: The ending.
No matter how the death knell occurs, the world as we know it will cease to exist someday. Either the planet will become unable to sustain life (possibly all life, possibly just current life) or our civilization will break down, leaving those humans who manage to survive limping along, less civilized than ever.
Despite this gloomy eventuality, it's not all bad. An impending apocalypse is a great reason to stock up on ramen noodles and canned goods. And we're betting a few bottles of wine will store just as well as bottled water -- just don't forget to leave a corkscrew in your bomb shelter.
And we'll have germs to keep us company. (Yay?) Scientists believe that microorganisms will survive any number of global disasters. In fact, some bacteria are even expected to thrive on toxic waste [source: Wassenaar]. If it turns out that Armageddon puts an end to human beings, these single-celled organisms could take over, evolve into complex, humanlike creatures and repopulate the Earth. Of course, this process could take a few hundred million years [source: American Museum of Natural History].
While we wait for the experts to come up with a "bring the humans back" timeline, we'll peruse a few apocalyptic scenarios. Oh, and you may want to hone a few useful end-times skills -- like crafting a flint knife or curling up into a protective ball. We'll be doing the same.
20: Killer Couches and Chemical Co-conspirators
Most upholstered sofas, mattresses and lounge chairs contain flame-retardant chemicals that can be hazardous to humans and pets. Don't get us wrong: We don't want to go up in flames while we watch "Teen Mom" reruns, but we don't want to be killed by the chemicals in our couches, either.
Studies have shown that flame-retardant chemicals -- designed to temporarily resist open flame -- break down over time, co-mingle with dust particles and can be inhaled by people and pets. The chemicals monkey with our bodies at a cellular level and have been linked to cancer [source: Main].
But couches aren't the only furniture putting families at risk. The finishes on some nursery furniture, such as cribs, have been shown to emit formaldehyde fumes [source: Environment Massachusetts]. And PVC, which contains phthalates and dioxins, could be lurking in everything from easy chairs to draperies [source: Global Health and Safety Initiative].
The use of chemicals in furniture is so widespread that until legislation mandates that manufacturers cease using them, consumers will be hard-pressed to locate healthier seating options [source: Main]. This means entire nations of people who nap on couches could be annihilated by disease. And that's not comfy in the least.
19: Planetary Heartburn
For eons, icy structures at the bottom of the world's oceans have trapped and stored mass quantities of naturally occurring greenhouse gases, including methane. These gas-storing structures, known as clathrates, may not seem like a big deal since they're miles under sea. However, they're not as insulated from the Earth's surface as one might think -- especially if the planet is gradually warming.
Even a minor increase in oceanic temperatures could turn these methane-filled clathrates into superweapons capable of world destruction. The warmer the oceans become, the more the clathrates will swell. When that happens, the clathrates will belch their methane stores to the water's surface in the biggest burp of all time.
The release of these greenhouses gases into the atmosphere will trigger more global warming, hotter seas and the release of yet more clathrates' gasses -- up to some 400 gigatons (which is approximately the weight of some 1.5 billion large African elephants, just to give you an idea of the scale we're talking about) [source: Atcheson, San Diego Zoo]. It's our very own version of planetary heartburn, and it could send Earth's life, which depends on delicately balanced climates for its survival, into a tailspin.
18: Death by Magma
A supervolcano disaster may sound like a third-grade science project that's gone awry, spewing baking soda-based lava onto the teacher's desk, or like something out of a cheesy sci-fi B-movie. However, supervolcanoes are very real, and the results of one erupting would be far more disastrous than baking soda or bad ratings.
Take the supervolcano percolating in Wyoming's Yellowstone National Park, for example. This restless giant could erupt volcanic ash, lava and hot steam without much warning. It would spread destruction from Wyoming to the Gulf of Mexico, prompt significant weather changes across the planet and kill everything within reach of its miles-wide lava path [source: Cessna]. Even the magma of the smallest erupting supervolcanoes could cover some 240 cubic miles (1,000 cubic kilometers) [source: McGuire]. This makes a large supervolcano, like the one in Yellowstone that measures 25 by 37 miles (40 by 60 kilometers), a super threat [source: Handwerk]. And there are five other supervolcanoes around the world, each sufficiently powerful to threaten global extinction.
17: Earth's Light Switch Flips
Global dimming occurs when air pollution creates a thick cloud barrier that blocks sunlight from reaching the Earth's surface. This barrier causes the Earth's temperature to dip and hides the evidence of the destructive phenomenon of global warming. And some scientists believe global dimming has caused the United States to become 10 percent darker than it was in the 1950s [source: Lewis].
Some of these scientists contend that as pollution continues to dim the planet's overhead light, the Earth will eventually enter another ice age. And without sunlight, plants won't be able to grow or produce oxygen, meaning animals won't have enough food to eat or air to breathe. And most humans won't, either. Those who do cling to life will subsist on simple life forms, perhaps dining by torchlight on roast mouse with a side of cricket-mushroom compote.
Of course, after the ice age is in full swing, these precarious living conditions will seem like a cushy stay at the Ritz. The few remaining humans will witness the planet slip into darkness, which will spell doom for the insect, fungi and rodent diet on which they rely. If the survivors don't freeze to death, they'll certainly starve.
16: Colony Collapse Disorder
Since 2006, honeybees have been dying by the millions. To date, experts still aren't sure what has been causing up to 90 percent of hives to suddenly die. Why does it matter that such a small creature isn't buzzing about in as large numbers as before?
Bees offer billions of dollars of free labor every year as they pollinate agricultural crops. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, one-third of what we eat comes from plants that were pollinated by bees [source: USDA]. And that doesn't even factor in statistics about those who eat red meat. Cattle and sheep that are fed pollinated roughage, like alfalfa, rely on bees, too. The same goes for crops in other countries as well [source: Borenstein].
Without honeybees to help propagate our crops, there will be a critical shortage to global food supplies -- and your dinner plate. Over time, this shortage could spiral out of control and lead to looting and other desperate measures, until famine sets in and the world's population starves to death.
15: Gigantic Mentos/Diet Coke Collision
Some have joked that a Mentos/Coke collision is the apocalypse trigger we'll never see coming, but is there any reality behind the jest?
Here's one way a Mentos factory could become a death trap that triggers global collapse. Picture this: A tanker truck carrying bottles of Diet Coke loses control, veers off a highway and breaches the Mentos factory's outer wall. Debris from the wreckage punctures the tanker. The moment the liquid Diet Coke encounters the multiton Mentos inventory, carbon dioxide bubbles rapidly form and expand in pits on the candy's surface. The ensuing explosion sends the Mentos factory sky-high, obliterates neighboring buildings and releases massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Carbon dioxide is odorless and colorless, so after the shock and destruction of the initial explosion, it won't seem to pose an immediate threat. However, because the gas is heavier than air, it will spread into low-lying areas and prove lethal to the people who breathe it in [source: USGS]. And if wind currents work in its favor, this silent killer could just snuff out -- well, maybe not the world, but a significant local population.
14: Black Hole
If you've ever cooked for a teenage athlete, then you understand how a bottomless pit works. When it comes to the bottomless space pits known as black holes, however, the mechanics are a bit more complex -- and could spell doom for our planet.
Black holes form when stars collapse on themselves and create an abyss from which nothing -- not even a shaft of light -- can escape [source: Imhoff]. So, if the Earth were to get sucked into one of the 10 million black holes that exist throughout the universe, it could mean curtains for us all [source: ABC News].
The closest black hole that is large enough to swallow the earth lies at the center of our own galaxy, but it's some 27,000 light-years away (that's about 159 quadrillion miles, or 255 quadrillion kilometers) [source: Star Date]. However, scientists have discovered a new threat: There are rogue black holes wandering throughout the universe, entering galaxies and ripping apart planets. Even from a billion miles a way, a renegade black hole could cause the Earth's orbit to change [source: ABC News]. Worse yet, if a large black hole were to come within a few miles of our planet's orbit, its gravitational pull would suck our world right in. The end.
13: Nuclear Winter
The Cold War may have ended in the 1980s, but that doesn't mean we're free from the threat of nuclear war. Several countries currently have nuclear warheads in their possession [source: Arms Control Association]. If any of these are fired, the initial nuclear blast could obliterate everything -- and everyone -- within a radius of up to 30 miles [source: The National Terror Alert Response Center]. Even just one nuclear blast could be powerful enough that survivors worldwide might have to contend with a nuclear winter.
Each nuclear blast pushes massive amounts of smoke, dust and radioactive particles into the atmosphere. In a nuclear winter, this debris would be great enough to blot out the sun, lower the Earth's temperature and cause many of the Earth's life forms to die. The radioactive particles in the Earth's atmosphere would eventually fall, poisoning agricultural lands, water supplies and people. Anyone who survived the initial nuclear blast would need to hole up in a bomb shelter for the first few days of heavy fallout, perhaps as long as a month [source: FEMA]. Even with a stock of canned goods and bottled water, survivors would just be taking a rain check on their death sentence, thanks to the ensuing radioactivity and nuclear winter.
12: Asteroid Impact
We admit that an end-of-the-world plot that centers on chunk of space rock plummeting to Earth is a bit overdone. Or so it seemed, until we figured out that this sort of scenario could actually happen in the not-too-distant future.
Scientists have discovered an asteroid that's a quarter-mile (390 meters) in diameter and may hit the Earth in 2036. If it does, it would explode upon impact with more than 100,000 times the force of a nuclear blast, releasing planet-darkening dust into the atmosphere and endangering every life-form on the planet [source: Jha].
Plus, scientists report that even larger bodies lurk in a strike zone near the Earth, some of which are large enough to decimate entire nations on impact -- if their course interferes with ours [source: CNN]. Like the 2036 asteroid, these may need to be dispatched using spacecraft set on a collision course. Sounds like a box-office winner to us.
11: Hyper Evolution
Evolution used to take eons, but hyper evolution could complete the process in a matter of days or weeks. Forget the snail-paced decades once required for the most helpful genetic traits to be passed from generation to generation. If we manage to master hyper evolution, some believe we could change our own traits in a lifetime -- or even much faster. For example, like lizards that can regrow their own lost tails, humans could employ hyper evolution to regenerate a lost limb. Or they could use a few "master" cells to make a new, better organ, like using stem cells to grow a replacement retina for those who've gone blind [source: Irvine Today]. Even the brain could be gradually replaced as it aged and decayed. Life, it seems, could simply go on forever.
How could speeding up the evolutionary process lead to the end of the world? With all this unceasing evolution, human beings could potentially evolve into beings of higher consciousness who don't need their bodies at all. At which point we wouldn't need the earth's atmosphere, either, and could become beings of pure consciousness floating in the ether. With no physical forms to tie us to Earth, a mass exodus from our planet would be only a matter of time.
Germs are a hardy lot. We've managed to live with these pesky single-celled critters since cave dwellers first sampled stream-fresh sushi, but it's been an uneasy truce. And sometimes our population has been on the losing end of the human/germ war. The Black Plague comes to mind.
Many of the antibiotics that once relegated harmful germs to nothing more than a nuisance have lost their power as bacteria have mutated and produced resistant strains. According to some public health experts, it's entirely possible that a particularly virulent bug could spread like wildfire and wipe out the entire human race [source: Powell]. It's all the more reason to cover your mouth when you cough.
9: Mass Insanity
During the 1950s, an entire town in the south of France suddenly suffered hallucinations that caused people to do things like strangle their loved ones, jump out of windows or believe they were being eaten by snakes. No one is certain who -- or what -- caused the madness, but it's suspected that LSD-, mold- or mercury-tainted bread sold by the local bakery was the delivery method [source: Fabricius]. Think mass insanity couldn't happen today? Maybe it already has.
In 2010, the World Health Organization reported that more than 450 million people around the world have a psychological disorder [source: World Health Organization]. In 2011, the Centers for Disease Control revealed that half of all Americans would develop mental illness during their lifetimes [source: Reinberg]. And by 2020, depression is estimated to become the second leading cause of disability [source: World Health Organization]. Though a poisoning of our global food supply with psychoses-inducing chemicals could send minds reeling and tear the very fabric of society apart, perhaps we're headed toward similar results all on our own.
8: Grey Goo
If nanotechnology machines -- which can be a hundred thousand times smaller than the diameter of a human hair -- figure out how to spontaneously replicate themselves, it would naturally have dire consequences for humanity [source: Levin]. Especially if the research funded by the U.S. Defense Department gets out of control: Researchers there are attempting to create an Energetically Autonomous Tactical Robot (EATR) that would fuel itself by consuming battlefield debris, which could include human corpses [source: Lewinski].
If nanotechnology did develop an appetite for human flesh -- or some of the other things we rely on for survival, like forests or machinery -- it could decimate everything on the planet in a matter of days. These hungry mini-robots would relegate our blue and green home to "grey goo," a term that describes the unidentifiable particles left behind after the nanocritters eat buildings, landscapes and, well, everything else. The term was first penned by scientist Eric Drexler in his book "Engines of Creation" [source: Radford].
Most scientists believe the grey goo scenario is a long shot, at least when it comes to global destruction. Others, however, still think humans should keep a close watch on the little buggers [source: Jha]. Maybe someone should design a master kill switch, just in case.
7: Gulf Stream's a Goner
In this scenario, global warming is to blame for our global demise. Again. This time, it's because melting glacial ice is diluting the oceans like our planet is a giant scotch on the rocks. This, in turn, spells disaster for currents, like the Gulf Stream, that connect the world's bodies of water into a cohesive, waterlogged freeway.
The Gulf Stream current is driven primarily by thermohaline circulation, a salt- and heat-driven pattern in which cold Arctic water, dense with salt from evaporation, sinks and flows beneath warmer, more buoyant water from the tropics. If the melting glaciers put enough fresh water into the Gulf Stream, the circulation process will stop running. And this will lead to the death of sea life, changes in weather patterns that cause droughts and famine, an increase in weather-related disasters and even a minor ice age [source: Battersby]. Sounds like it might be time to add parkas and mittens to the good ol' end-of-times stockpile, doesn't it?
6: Big Bang Redux
Scientists at the European Organizations for Nuclear Research (CERN) built an atom smasher 17 miles (27 kilometers) in diameter. While this mega machine -- known as the Large Hadron Collider -- might sound like a fictional device you'd find in a secret laboratory run by an evil mastermind, it's actually located in Switzerland and staffed by relatively normal folks -- if you can stretch "relatively normal" to include "physicists bent on recreating the big bang thought to have created the universe."
The job of the particle accelerator is to move atoms around its circumference at the speed of light before smashing them together with incredible force. Lawsuits and unexpected repairs delayed the big bang experiment for several years, but on March 30, 2010, the LHC finally experienced the first collisions between particle beams, and it set a world record for the highest-energy manmade particle collision. While the purpose of the LHC is to further scientific understanding of the laws of nature and possibly create new forms of energy, some believe that it has the potential to blow up the world -- or create a massive black hole that will swallow the world [source: Wethington]. However, now that the machine has been running successfully, it seems to inspire less fear of catastrophe.
5: The Sun Expands
Toward the end of it's life, the Earth's sun will begin expanding like so many Americans' waistlines. But the fact that the sun will need to let out its figurative belt as it ages isn't unusual.
As stars like the sun near the end of their natural lifespans and become first red giants and then planetary nebulae, they expand massively, overtaking planets that happen to be nearby. This means that the Earth should eventually be pulled into the sun's dying embrace, unless the sun's decreased gravity enlarges Earth's orbit and allows our planet to escape [source: Cain].
Either way, don't worry about your progeny spiraling into the sun. The star's expanding range of heat and radiation will kill humanity (and evaporate the oceans, and melt the planet's crust) long before it encompasses the Earth. And there's one more bright side to this scenario: The Earth/sun death course isn't expected to take place for another few billion years or so [source: Wagenseil]. That's plenty of time for a different apocalyptic scenario to play out.
4: Dinosaurs Dine on Humans
In 1996, scientists created the world's first live clone: Dolly the sheep [source: Weise]. So, why not use our collective scientific smarts to bring dinosaurs back? Americans love to tote our pets in carriers, so just imagine what we'd do with a baby dinosaur. It's one thing to picture a teacup stegosaur wearing a bedazzled collar and leash. It's another thing entirely to think about how you'd run errands while dodging a hungry Tyrannosaurus rex.
Fortunately, unless new advances in cloning are made, scientists will need more than just DNA to clone a T. rex. The process would require additional cellular materials for that DNA to live in, like an unfertilized egg cell and a cell nucleus [source: Becker]. If scientists do come up with a workaround, a burgeoning dinosaur population could rule the Earth -- and probably eat its current inhabitants (us, of course) for lunch.
3: Planetary Annihilation Party Goes Viral
On June 3, 2011, a German teenager was surprised with a party on her birthday. Actually, the party itself wasn't meant to be a surprise. She'd sent out the Facebook invitations herself. Unfortunately, she made the invitation public and (here's where the surprise comes in) more than 15,000 people replied that they'd attend the event. When some 1,500 people arrived at the birthday party in her quiet residential neighborhood, it resulted in general alcohol- and cake-fueled mayhem (which the birthday girl herself fled from) and a few minor injuries and detainments [source: Wilson].
What if some megalomaniacal joker tries to host a modestly sized planetary-annihilation-and-cookie-swap party and it goes viral? It could result in the meeting of millions bent on world destruction. Now that's harnessing the power of social media.
2 : Artificial Intelligence Outsmarts Its Creators
Many of us were convinced that by the time we reached adulthood, robots would fetch our coffee, tie our shoes and make our beds. While we're still waiting for a "Jetsons"-style housebot with superhuman domestic skills, there has nonetheless been considerable progress on the smart robot front, including robots that can operate without direct human instruction (like the Roomba, a disc-shaped robot programmed to automatically vacuum carpets) or reassemble themselves when torn apart [source: Trimble].
And on the horizon? Robots that can act as companions for the elderly while monitoring their vital signs or entertain children while keeping parents in-the-know via built-in cameras [source: Camber]. There are predictions that by 2020, we'll be outwitted by the artificial intelligence that we create [source: McKinney]. Or maybe just swept up by hordes of quick-witted Roombas, once cherished as near pets but then discarded, sold on eBay and bent on revenge.
1: It Was All a Dream
Have you ever wondered if your existence -- and the world around you -- is all a dream? Plenty of people, from ancient philosophers to modern moviemakers, have wondered the exact same thing. It's proof that this question is dogging humankind throughout the ages.
Take the 2010 movie "Inception" for example. The movie's characters enter dreams and take actions that have real-life consequences. The idea may seem far-fetched, but some researchers believe that people really can influence dreams. All it requires is a little self-suggestion before a snooze: When people think about what they'd like to dream before they fall asleep, it often shows up in their dreamscapes [source: Marikar]. This news makes us want to rethink our late-night reality show addiction, that's for sure.
If we can manipulate our dreams -- or those of other people -- it could mean that we're simply dreaming up life as we know it, or that we're the fictional subjects of someone else's dream. Either way, there's no need to worry about how the world will end. Or which guy the bachelorette of the moment will choose. And missing that scene is probably a win-win for everyone.
Lots More Information
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