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Apocalyptic January and the Portents of Doom

Sounds Sciencey

Sharon Hill

March 7, 2012

Every week there are at least a few strange and mysterious events reported around the world, such as rivers turning colors, odd animal observations, and the discovery of mystery objects. These subjects are sometimes referred to as “Fortean” (named after Charles Fort, who first systematically collected and published books about them)—events and reports that appear outside what is normal and may appear to conflict with existing scientific consensus about how nature works. Whatever you call them, they are anomalous, and people seek explanations for them.

In January 2012, the Internet was buzzing over a string of reports about strange sounds coming from the sky. It’s what Forteans would call a “flap,” meaning there is an outbreak of activity in a relatively short time span that causes a commotion. This flap reminded me of last January (2011), when another flap manifested. This one got the public all aflutter over mass animal deaths, mostly birds and sea critters.

Interested in the cause behind these anomalies, I noticed some common causal agents proposed as plausible in mainstream commentary that were very similar to those thrown around on conspiracy and paranormal forums. They were science-based Doomsday agents, effective in scaring the bejeezus out of generally rational people. And the arrival of 2012—heavily weighted with (very commercially exploited) “End of the World” overtones—serves to popularize these stories even more.

A Mad Start to 2011

It began on New Years Eve 2010…

More than 1,000 birds fell out of the sky in Beebe, Arkansas. In the Arkansas River 125 miles away, 100,000 drum fish were found floating. A few days later, with the mystery of the Arkansas mass deaths still fresh in the news, another 500 dead blackbirds fell dead in southern Louisiana. Millions of fish washed up on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland.

On January 6, the U.K. Daily Mail called the mass animal deaths a global phenomena, citing the following list:

  • “3,000 blackbirds on roofs and roads in Beebe, Arkansas
  • 450 red-winged blackbirds, brown-headed cowbirds, grackles, and starlings found littering a highway in Baton Rouge, Louisiana
  • Thousands of fish found floating in Florida
  • 200 birds found dead on highway bridge in Texas
  • 50 dead jackdaws found on city street in Sweden
  • 100 tons of sardines, croaker, and catfish dead on Brazilian coast
  • Thousands of drum fish washed up along a 20-mile stretch of the Arkansas River
  • Tens of thousands of small fish dead in Chesapeake Bay, Maryland
  • Hundreds of snapper fish dead in New Zealand
  • 40,000 devil crabs washed up along the Kent coast near Thanet”
dead birds

Web pages and newspapers featured front-page photos of dead animals strewn about beach and pavement. Phrases such as “gruesome horror” and “terrifying carnage” described bodies raining from the sky and creating a “carpet of death.” Maps pinpointed the disparate events from all over the world. As our brains are wired to do, people felt compelled to connect them together and then freak out over the imagined agents causing this destruction. Are humans next to experience mass mortality?

To their credit, most media outlets sought wildlife experts for comment alongside the gratuitous mention of Biblical plagues and secret governmental testing. The official explanations did not go over well with observers. The Arkansas blackbirds were killed when fireworks scared them from their roosts at night, resulting in mid-air collisions with houses and each other and, finally, the ground. Dead water creatures suffered from a cold snap experienced by the southern U.S. and Europe at the time. In other cases, the reasons why dead animals appeared were related to bad weather or even human agents. No, that couldn’t be it, said the witnesses. “Why doesn’t this happen all the time?” people remarked. For them, the events were too shocking to have mundane explanations.

Commenters on news stories often cited certain catastrophic natural events, such as earthquakes, as reasonable-sounding causes for the deaths. All sorts of related events were mentioned—gas releases, vibrations, or stress buildup in the earth affecting animals. Even more popular than earthquake theories was the magnetic pole shift idea: The magnetic field is weakening and the poles are moving, disrupting animal life. One person said about the magnetic pole shift theory: “Not saying it’s the best explanation but it’s better than fireworks.”

As people connected all these events in their heads with a single mysterious cause, some members of the public perceived the chain of events as evidence of the wrath of nature. The planet was out to kill us all. It was not unusual to find commentary describing the earth as a vengeful goddess punishing us for our transgressions. The environmental consequences of humans on the planet were frequently cited. Global warming, pollution, and use of pesticides were feared culprits responsible for animal deaths. People saw dead animals and wondered if they would be next. Will the cats die from eating the dead birds and fish? Is there a disease or virus that could spread? Testing was demanded. When it came up negative, conspiracy was always an option.

The next step away from the natural toward the unnatural was the suggestion that the government had something to do with this. Were they testing killing devices? Injecting gas into the ground? Conducting experiments that went awry? The favorite go-to excuse was HAARP—the High-Frequency Active Auroral Research Program. HAARP sends signals into the atmosphere and measures the response. Conspiracy minded people have a love/hate relationship with HAARP. They hate it because they “know” its purpose is evil, but they love it because it provides a convenient scapegoat to blame for everything—bad weather, animal deaths, technology malfunction, mind control, whatever you can imagine.

The mass animal deaths served as a nexus for speculation and conversation, reflecting public belief in these uncertain times and people’s emotional reactions to frightening, potentially threatening events without obvious causes. The “animals dying all over the place” hype passed in the media after experts showed nothing mysterious killed the animals. Eventually people stopped reporting every floating fish or dead bird on their lawn. But people didn’t forget the “aflockalypse.” Every now and then, it happens again, and the connection is reinforced.

2012 Apocalypse Fever

Intermingle elements from various cultures, religion, and fictional tales with some very “sciencey” sounding scenarios and, voila, we have widespread anxiety over the 2012 end of the world prophecies.

Throughout 2011, the 2012 Apocalypse fever spread via television and particularly on the web to the point where it was entertainment. In the popular 2009 movie 2012, earthquakes and tsunamis—geologic events familiar to the public—destroyed cities. The website 2012 Hoax lists proposed scenarios for the end of the world, which all sound very “sciencey.” Here is a selection of agents: various celestial alignments (planets, galaxies), a slew of Doomsday objects approaching Earth (Nibiru, comets), pole shifts (magnetic and rotational), and energy bursts directed toward Earth (solar flares and supernovas).

While some of these events are plausible and would indeed have catastrophic impact on Earth, many are nonsense, wouldn’t have the effect as dramatized, and/or are not anticipated to occur in the near future. Nothing astronomically unique is predicted to occur in 2012, and scientists say no catastrophe appears imminent. If a mystery star/planet/comet were on a collision course with Earth, we would be seeing its approach by now. If any unforeseen disaster occurs in 2012, it would be just that. Unforeseen—both by science and by ancient civilizations. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make headlines.

As with the unofficial explanations proposed for the animal deaths, the 2012 end of the world agents of doom provided a curious hybrid of sciencey sounding plausible reasoning that seamlessly morphed into full-blown science fiction scenes.

This takes us into the actual year 2012, which is off to a rough start.

Strumming HAARP Strings

On January 9, 2012, unexplained noises coming from the sky were reported in Costa Rica, followed days later by reports from Malaysia. For the next two weeks, dozens of reports of sky sounds surfaced from all over the world. They varied widely in type: booms, roars, mechanical, musical, single tones, whooshing.

The media once again offered natural or man-made explanations. Initially, the Costa Rica sounds were suspected to be military aircraft, fireworks, or seismic events. The Malaysia sound was from a local factory. But before a source could be pinpointed, speculation went off the edge into the fringe. News spread via Facebook, and discussions appeared on Internet forums. Such forums are incubators for imaginative and completely unsupported ideas to “explain” events. Many of the previous agents suspected in the mass animal deaths were mentioned now as behind the sky noises: HAARP, pole shifts, and earthquake precursors. Solar flares (which happened to deliver us a big blow during this time, producing spectacular aurora displays and feeding the speculation) were a popular suggested cause. HAARP and solar flares were said to produce the sounds by various means, none of which is plausible or supported by strong evidence.

Commentators on these news stories, blog posts, and forums often knew just enough science to be dangerous. Words like ionosphere, electromagnetic, and frequency were peppered through the comments to suggest scientific credibility. Core ideas about how the atmosphere works were warped into fantastic scenarios of global superstorms and worldwide disruption. All touch with reality is forsaken by this comment on a story in the Daily Mail: “HAARP as electromagnetic warfare makes the most sense.” I also saved this one for its sheer sciencey goodness: “What you hear is Harmonic Resonance, caused by the HAARP project. They are heating up the ionosphere to steer the jet streams and weather patterns and it causes the ionosphere to vibrate. The result is the ionosphere vibrating and causing a harmonic between it (ionosphere) and the earth. All part of the Chemtrail program.”

HAARP, hazmat, and dying birds artworkArtwork by David Dees

It’s Going to be a Bumpy Ride

These examples showing the incorporation of bits of scientific knowledge into what the public frames as evidence for a coming worldwide cataclysm is curious. The sciencey bits make the Doomsday scenarios sound serious, no matter what your religious background. And they sound plausible to many, no matter what their education levels.

Whether it was pole shifts or angels trumpeting Armageddon, everyone volunteered their “informed” opinions in those free-for-all places on the Internet. This “opinionating” was equated to “theorizing,” and the most extreme supernatural explanations were considered “as good a theory as any.” Valid explanations were frequently confused with ones that were personally satisfying to the individual.

traffic sign saying THE END IS NEAR

In both of the January Fortean flaps, unrelated events grouped into a pattern reinforced the idea that these events were “portents of doom.” When facts were hard to establish, rampant speculation based on this idea filled the vacuum. When that happens, it’s too late to appear rational. The right questions were not asked of real scientists. I’m reminded of the famous Mark Twain quote: “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” It was damn hard to try to talk any sense into those pushing sciencey sounding ideas and conspiracies. I know because I tried.

Using a dramatic explanation when an obvious one is not forthcoming (or acceptable) gives the explainer a sense of control. Strangest of all, the fatalistic attitude of the public about these “end of the world” scenarios appeared more appealing to them than accepting that “We don’t know what’s going on.”

I’m expecting more of this throughout the year.


For daily news on anomalies and pseudoscience, visit my website Doubtful News.

Sharon Hill

Sharon Hill's photo

Sharon Hill is a scientific and technical consultant for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and creator of Read more at