In order for the world to end, there truly would need to be a catastrophic global event. Something along the lines of a meteor collision, our Sun collapsing or even a nearby galaxy crashing into ours. These are all things that could very easily happen at some points in the planets life, but what will happen first? What will cause the Earth as we know it to be destroyed? In this article I’ll look at the most possible causes for the end of the world, and determine the likelihood of them happening.
The polar shifts is something that is actually occurring right now, but it can take thousands of years to complete. During the polar shift the magnetic field of the Earth becomes much weaker. The magnetic field protects us from harmful solar flares, and when the magnetic field weakens, we will be much more vulnerable to these flares. Some people believe that this could have some extreme effects on our planet, and maybe destroy it. For starters, it could seriously affect some animals who use the poles to navigate, and this could impact ecosystems to an extent which is hard to predict. It would also expose us to higher amounts of solar radiation, which will have an unknown impact on us.
However, the last polar shift was some 780,000 years ago, and during this time humans were not only surviving on Earth, but thriving, and expanding. It was around this time that early humans were reaching Britain, and this suggests that the last polar shift wasn’t particularly extreme or devastating.
There a chance that during the last polar shift the sun was going through a calm spot, and no serious solar flares were sent our way, and we might not be so lucky this time. A particularly nasty solar flare could possibly have a serious impact on our planet, however, the chances of it destroying Earth is pretty slim.
So although there is a chance the polar shifts could bring an end to our world, it is very very unlikely. Chances are it will just cause some disruption, which is lucky really, because it is happening now!
The next event which could end the world as we know it global warming (despite some people still denying it).
The full affect of global warming on our planet is unknown, and is still largely in the hands of the world leaders. However, we do know that it will affect some vital parts of our planet, which are essential for our survival. Crops will be most heavily affected, some will benefit, whereas others will fail. Some parts of the world will be more productive, whereas other will lose the ability to grow food. The overall net global production of food isn’t known, but it can easily cause instability around the globe. You can see from the graph (from the EPA website) to the right that drought (which will be more common in mid America) and other extreme or unusual weather events consistently cause a decreased yield in crop production.
Growing populations, lower food production, fewer resources and more extreme weather is a great recipe for global disaster. Could it cause a devastating global war – quite possibly. Will it cause the world to end? – unlikely. It will cause problems for the future, sure, and may even cause the human population to decrease, but that is probably the extent of it. Global warming will probably have a greater impact on our planet than the polar shifts, but it is unlikely to cause the world to end.
There is always the chance the a massive asteroid could crash into the Earth at any moment and destroy the planet completely, or at least cause enough damage to wipe out the human race. After all, it happened to the dinosaurs, so it could happen to us. Asteroids are a very real threat, and so NASA is trying to identify all the objects in space which could cause a world ending event.
NASA has identified a number of asteroids which could impact the Earth, but thankfully, the odds of a collision are pretty low. The greatest identified risk has a 0.29% chance of impacting Earth in the next 100-200 years, and this asteroid isn’t thought to be enough to end the world, just cause some damage. You can view all the identified objects and their risk of impact here, all of the odds of an impact are very low. However, not all the asteroids out there have been identified, and there could possibly be an asteroid hurtling towards Earth right now! The odds are very very low though.
So although an asteroid hitting Earth would cause much more damage than the polar shifts or global warming, it is unlikely to be the cause for the end of the world simply because the odds of it happening are too low.
The above threats seem to be the only real threats to Earth for the next 3-4 billion years. The poles will shift a number of times during this time and if we survive through global warming, we would have survived through the worst of it. Earth will probably have probably been hit by a couple of asteroids too, but it’s still unlikely to be anything too devastating (there is that small chance though, and 4 billions years is a long time).
According to Dave Goldberg, a Physics Professor at Drexel University, in about 4 billion years the nearby galaxy Andromeda will collide with our home galaxy – the Milky Way. This collision will take a few billion years to complete, but the galactic disruption is sure to cause some devastating effects on our galaxy. Planets, asteroids and even stars will pass through our own galaxy, some collisions are certain, and this can release massive amounts of radiation. You can view the below video to see what the collision of the 2 galaxies will look like.
Gravitational forces in our galaxy will shift dramatically, and a passing star could easily pull us out of orbit and fling us into the freezing depths of space. Yet there is still a chance Earth will survive. Fortunately space is indeed made up of a lot of space, and there is a chance that our solar system will pass through some of this ‘space’ in the Andromeda galaxy, and we would survive!
The collisions of these galaxies won’t be a quiet event, and our world could end in any number of ways, all of which are far beyond our control, but there is still that chance we can survive.
The death of the Sun will surely be the end of the world. Not because we would no longer get light and warmth, but because the sun will expand and incinerate our planet; and possibly even engulf it. Estimates on when this will happen are not so clear, but it will probably happen between 5-7 billion years from now. Being engulfed by a star will truly spell the end of our planet, but the world as we know it will end many years before this, due to the heat from the Sun. Everything on our planet will be burnt to a crisp, and Earth will more closly resemble Mercury (the closest planet to the Sun at the moment) that what we know Earth as today.
Unlike all the other threats, there is no chance for the Earth escaping being incinerated and engulfed by our Sun.
Polar shifts and global warming pose a slight risk to our planet, but they are more likely to disrupt our planet’s ecosystem and climate than destroy the it. Asteroids pose a very real risk, but the chances of a collision from an asteroid big enough to destroy it is extremely low (but that chance will always exist). So there isn’t anything in the foreseeable future (few thousands of years) which is likely to cause the end of the world.
However, in about 4 billion years time, this will all change. Our galaxy will collide with another, which will throw radiation, asteroids, planets and stars at us, and this could indeed cause the end of the world. If we somehow survive this collision the Earth will soon be burnt to a crisp by our own Sun, and engulfed – completely destroying the planet. So the world will definitely end in 4-5 billion years, but there is a slight risk it could end sooner.
Image courtesy of Royce Bair
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There are a number of events which have a small chance of causing the world to end sooner, but the most definate answer is in about 4-5 billions years, when our sun expands and bruns/ engulfs our planet.