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Scenarios for the end of the world

Examing potential disaster situations

Photo courtesy of SXC.HU

If you’re planning for the end of the world, you’re going to have to consider volcanoes, asteroids, aliens, zombies and even nuclear war. Better start studying.

December 20, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST

If civilization comes to an end tomorrow, knowing what’s coming could be the difference between living and dying. In advance, you’re welcome. We’re nearing the closing stages of the ironic in-joke that’s permeated the 2012 zeitgeist –– didn’t those pesky Mayans say the world was going to end in December? Let’s be prepared.

To infinity and beyond

A good number of the potential apocalyptic scenarios involve space-related disasters, such as a solar storm. Haojing Yan, an MU astronomy professor and researcher, says that though storm activity on the sun’s surface can fluctuate, it is unlikely that even a particularly large storm would do more than interfere with communication systems.

An asteroid collision is another hypothetical. Yan notes that humans could destroy an asteroid or divert its path. “The weapons we have could destroy our own planet many times over,” he says. Even if it sounds like science fiction, Yan thinks destroying an asteroid is feasible. Ideally, we won’t have to find out whether he’s right. NASA agrees, as it has endorsed a thorough discussion of avoidance techniques and strategies for near-Earth object mitigation.

Et tu, mother earth?

Potential weather-related disasters are in discussion, as well. Some believe a massive supervolcano, such as the Yellowstone Caldera in Wyoming, could erupt and send massive amounts of ash into the sky. Patrick Market, an associate professor of atmospheric science at MU, says putting even a small amount of ash into the atmosphere can have an impact on our weather, citing the drop in temperatures worldwide after the deadly 1982 eruptions of El Chichon, a volcano in Mexico. Market is quick to note, though, that he thinks the Mayan calendar ends on Dec. 21 because “the calendar maker died.” Reasonable hypothesis.

Somebody call rick Grimes

Some have fretted over a sudden invasion of zombies. Buy some zombie DVDs, and start taking notes. That’s what the smart folks are doing.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have sanctioned an official zombie preparedness campaign — if you’re prepared for a zombie invasion, it reasons, you’ll be prepared for more realistic disaster scenarios.

As for aliens, well, NASA did indefinitely extend its Curiosity Rover’s stay on Mars. If the Martians were waiting for Friday, they’ll get their chance.

Imagine no religion

Could Dec. 21 serve as Judgment Day or the second coming? Richard Callahan, the chair of MU religious studies, says there’s no way of knowing, but that particular date isn’t recognized by any mainstream religious groups or even the Mayans themselves. Callahan noted a California religious group’s mass-suicide in the late ’90s. The members believed that humans descended from aliens. When a comet approached in 1997, the group members committed suicide and hoped to reach the mother ship they believed to be tailing the comet. “It was sort of a mix of Star Trek, evolution and Christianity all together,” Callahan says, wryly noting that we have no way of knowing whether they did in fact make it to the mother ship. You might want to grab a copy of War of the Worlds or watch Independence Day to prepare for the worst.

War: what is it good for?

If there’s a nuclear war, comedian Lewis Black succinctly outlined the percentage play years ago: Find somewhere to hide, put your head between your legs and kiss your unmentionables goodbye. The consequences of a nuclear war have been documented, and it’s pretty grim. In short, mankind could certainly wipe itself out. Let’s cross our fingers and hope it doesn’t come to that.

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