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Predicting the End of the World

Responding to Public Questions and Misconceptions

David Morrison

December 6, 2010

NASA Astrobiologist David Morrison answers more common questions

Question: If there is no problem coming in 2012 then why is the government of the United States in such a rush to build so many underground bunkers? On Jesse Ventura’s Conspiracy Theory on TV they showed the inside of bunkers and they also showed U.S. security forces. They stated they’d do what ever it takes to keep the bunkers secure in 2012.

There are no bunkers being built in anticipation of 2012, except possibly by some individuals who don’t realize that doomsday 2012 is a hoax. I expect that Jesse Ventura knows 2012 is just a hoax, but he is in show business. His show Conspiracy Theory is entertainment, not journalism. The name gives this away because “conspiracy theory” is a pejorative term that refers to any fringe idea that explains a historical or current event as the result of a secret plot by conspirators. Watch Ventura’s episode on 2012 carefully and you will see that he shows no actual government bunkers and interviews no one who claims to have seen them. It is all innuendo and speculation, with films of people (in the Denver airport for example) who are obviously confused by this guy asking weird questions and wanting access to “bunkers.” He does show one example where private developers are constructing homes inside an abandoned missile silo. Notice that Ventura did not contact the people who are planning to move into one of these underground homes to ask them why they are moving there. This show is for entertainment, so it is better to leave questions unresolved.

In reality, there are bombproof civil defense bunkers all around the U.S. that were built during the cold war, especially during the Eisenhower administration. These include the famous Cheyenne Mountain operations center of the Strategic Air Command and the large complex at Greenbrier, West Virginia, which was once the designated site for senior government officials in case of atomic attack on Washington. (There are good Wikipedia articles on both). Civil defense shelters are an old story, and they have nothing to do with 2012.

Question: Should we be worried about the gradual warming of the Sun?

No, but you should be worried about the rapid warming of the Earth that we are experiencing today. The Sun influences climate in two ways. First, there is the periodic variation in solar energy output related to the eleven-year sunspot (or solar activity) cycle. The temperature changes due to this variation have been carefully monitored from space for several decades, and they are very small—almost too small to be detected in global temperature measurements.

Second, there is the gradual warming that has taken place since the Sun was formed more than four billion years ago, which will continue for billions of years into the future. As it ages, the Sun brightens by about 7 percent per billion years, which is negligible on any timescale of less than tens of millions of years, although it will make Earth uninhabitable some two to three billion years in the future.

Our current climate crisis is not related to the Sun. It is the direct response of the Earth to the added carbon dioxide and methane and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. More than century ago, Nobel Prize-winning chemist Svante Arrhenius first predicted that the release of carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels would cause additional greenhouse warming. Now we are seeing this as a dramatic climate change that places our entire civilization at risk.

There are interesting parallels between the campaign against climate science and the widespread efforts to deny biological evolution and block its inclusion in science classes. Both climate denialism and evolution denialism use pseudoscience to fight real science. They include founding of nonprofit institutes, publication of fake science in non-refereed journals, and sophisticated marketing in the halls of power. Apparently some scientists can be seduced by a strong ideological commitment to fight government environmental regulations, just as some creationists are much more interested in saving our souls (and theirs) than in addressing the science of biology. Like creationists, many of the climate contrarians are “merchants of doubt,” using pseudoscience to undercut real science and create a wedge for their nonscientific beliefs.

Question: If the world does not end in 2012, then when and how do you predict that it will end? Will it be a painful death?

The “end of the world” is a silly idea. For the first five years that I answered questions sent to “Ask an Astrobiologist,” I never encountered any questions about the end of the world. Now I receive at least one per week. My guess is that the people who ask these questions are not interested in the fact that the Sun will become a red giant and consume the Earth in about four billion years; no one expects the human race or human civilization to last for billions of years. These question askers seem to be fearful of something that will happen in their lifetimes or perhaps the lifetimes of their great-great grandchildren.

I promise you that there is nothing that could destroy the Earth. The only two possible global threats in the next few centuries or millennia are a collision with a large comet—which is extremely unlikely but possible—and the melting of the polar ice caps due to global warming, which is inevitable if we don’t dramatically alter our consumption of fossil fuels. Either global warming or a comet collision could lead to a mass extinction and perhaps the destruction of our civilization, but neither will be the end of the world or even of humanity. The problem with the question about the end of the world is that it raises needless fears and distracts us from dealing with the real problems we face.

David Morrison

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David Morrison is a long-time NASA senior scientist and Committee for Skeptical Inquiry fellow. He now divides his time between the SETI Institute and the NASA Lunar Science Institute. He hosts the "Ask an Astrobiologist" column at NASA's website.