So you’ve heard that the world may be coming to an end on the 21st of December 2012, as predicted by the ancient Maya?
Interested in finding out the truth? Then read these posts.
In part 1 I looked at the Mayan basis of the myth and found out that there actually isn’t one, the Maya never predicted the end of the world. In part 2 I looked at how planet Nibiru and cosmic alignments could harm the Earth, and found out that Nibiru doesn’t exist, and that cosmic alignments are totally harmless.
In this post I’ll continue to look at possible causes of destruction from space, focussing on solar storms and a possible impact from an asteroid or comet. As before, I’ll look at the theory and evidence with an open and fair mind.
Unlike Nibiru and cosmic alignments, solar storms and impacts from space are real and could do some serious damage to our civilization.
A solar storm is caused when the Sun ejects a large amount of matter from its surface (mostly electrons and protons) some of which then collides with the Earth, creating electrical storms that can damage electronic equipment.
Matter ejected from the Sun’s surface collides with the Earth all of the time and creates the effect called the Aurora Borealis. Take a look in this video:
Pretty cool huh?
Scientists call this matter the solar wind. When the solar wind strikes our planet it hits the Earth’s magnetic field (the Earth is like a big magnet and has it’s own magnetism), most of the solar wind is deflected around the Earth and into space, but some of the protons in the solar wind are carried along the Earth’s magnetic field lines and are channelled towards the North and South Poles, where they enter our atmosphere and collide with molecules of gas, like oxygen and nitrogen. As they strike these molecules energy is released and light of different colours is produced. In the Northern hemisphere this effect is called the Aurora Borealis, in the Southern hemisphere it’s called the Aurora Australis.
So what makes a solar storm different from the Aurora Borealis and Aurora Australis?
It’s the amount of solar wind that is important. If the solar wind becomes more intense for a time, it can place more pressure on the Earth’s magnetic field, and more matter can enter our atmosphere. This matter has an electric charge, and can disrupt electrical equipment on Earth if enough enters our atmosphere. This may happen when bubbles of intense magnetism form on the Sun’s surface, called sunspots. When these sunspots burst an explosion occurs, called a solar flare, which can throw matter from the Sun’s surface into space, if a large amount of matter is thrown out then this is called a coronal mass ejection.
One big ass solar flare!
Sunspots occur periodically on the Sun’s surface, but they follow a roughly 11 year cycle, called the solar cycle. The cycle has a strongest point, called the solar maximum, where sunspots form more often, and can be larger, and the cycle has a lowest point, called the solar minimum, when sunspots are less frequent and can be smaller.
In most of the 2012 stories involving solar storms, it is claimed that the Sun will reach the peak of a solar maximum in December 2012, at which time the Sun will release a huge coronal mass ejection, that will kill most of the life on the Earth’s surface.
Unlike Nibiru and cosmic alignments, solar storms are real and they can be dangerous. A huge solar storm hit Earth in September 1859, called the Carrington Event. Aurora were seen all over the world, and the global telegraph system (like an early version of the phone network) was disrupted. If the Carrington Event happened again today our society would be hit much harder, as we rely much more on electrical equipment. The greatest fear is that a huge solar storm could disrupt our electricity grids. If this did happen then our usual day-to-day life would be massively changed, as we wouldn’t be able to use electrical equipment, no more phone, TV, internet or fridges. The biggest problem would be that the food supply would be disrupted; if this happened for more than a few weeks then society could begin to brake down.
How likely is this to happen in 2012? The short answer is that it’s extremely unlikely. Huge solar storms are rare, and the solar cycle will reach its maximum in May 2013, not 2012. Scientists are also confident that this will be a relatively weak maximum, we’ve had much stronger maximums in the past, and nothing bad happened, a few satellites here and there were damaged, not much more.
You’ll read a lot of nonsense on the internet about solar storms. Most of these sources don’t even understand the basics of the science, or even get the terms solar flare, sunspot, solar storm and coronal mass ejection confused. If a site you’re reading makes these mistakes, then you can be confident that they’re talking garbage.
An asteroid or comet impact
How about an asteroid or comet ploughing into the Earth and wiping out humanity, like what happened to the dinosaurs?
As with solar storms, this can happen and has happened in the past. But unlike solar storms, large impacts from space can cause global extinction events.
Around 100,000 tonnes of rock falls to Earth each year, mostly as small pieces of rock and dust that burn-up harmlessly in our atmosphere. Objects a few meters across usually survive our atmosphere and fall to earth as small chunks, called meteorites. Roughly 500 meteorites hit the Earth’s surface each year, but none have ever been known to kill anyone.
Larger impacts can cause massive amounts of damage though. Asteroids and comets around 50 meters in size can devastate the area in which they strike. A meteor of this size exploded in the sky above an area of Russia called Tunguska in 1908, it’s explosion was roughly 1000 times stronger than the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 and could easily have destroyed a large city. Thankfully Tunguska was an isolated region with few residents. These kinds of impacts are luckily quite rare, happening roughly once every thousand years.
In fact, asteroid and comet impacts become more rare with size. Impacts with objects around 1km across happen roughly once every half a million years, and objects around 5km across once every ten million years. The asteroid that may have wiped out the dinosaurs was probably around 10km, no one knows exactly how often objects this size hit the Earth, but its probably between 65 to 100 million years.
A 10km size asteroid or comet strike could cause a huge amount of damage. The level of destruction depends how fast the object is travelling, what it’s made of and where it hits, but a strike of this size would release around 60 million megatons of energy, equivalent to 120,000 nuclear bombs or a 12.4 Richter scale earthquake. Any communities within thousands of kilometres of the impact site would be totally destroyed by shockwaves and the heat released. If the impact happened in the ocean it would be even worse, in addition to the shockwaves and the heat, huge tsunamis would sweep over he globe destroying many coastal cities.
Such an impact would also have larger global effects. A huge amount of rock would be vaporised by the impact and would be thrown into the atmosphere, some of this would fall to Earth again, igniting forest fires all over the globe. A lot of the rock would remain floating in our atmosphere as small pieces of dust though, and this is the real problem. This dust would be quickly carried across the globe by atmospheric currents and would block out the sun for many months, even for years. If the Sun was blocked, then plants would begin to die as they could no longer photosynthesise. Plants form the foundation of all global ecosystems, and as the plants die ecosystems would begin to collapse; the animals that eat plants would begin to die, as would the animals that eat these animals; and eventually our global food networks would be destroyed. Humans would be left with little food and our civilization could collapse into anarchy and mass death.
But could we spot such an object and destroy it before it struck the Earth?
A number of telescopes are tracking asteroids near Earth as part of the Spaceguard project, and would hopefully identify any asteroids that could strike Earth and cause significant damage, its estimated that by 2020 we should have identified 90% of asteroids larger than 140 meters across. More difficult to detect are comets, particularly long-period comets, as most have unknown orbits and would likely be detected when they were close to Earth, giving us a warning time of only a few months.
However, even if we were aware of a dangerous asteroid of comet heading towards us, we may not have the technology and resources to be able to react in time. There are a number of theories about how we could deflect such an object away from the Earth (no Hollywood, we can’t blow one up with ‘nukes), including firing a massive object at it or pushing it away with beams of light or ions. However we don’t have this technology today, and the governments of the world may not be able to work together quick enough to create such a device in time (image the arguments over which device to use, and the politicians arguing about funding – look how long it took to fix the BP oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico!)
If I was going to make up my own 2012 prophecy I’d have a long-period comet come hurtling out of the deep Solar System and smash into North America before we could react to it, blocking Sun light from reaching the Earth’s surface and causing our civilization to collapse.
I think that this could actually happen. And it could happen any day, at any time, there’s no reason to believe it would happen on the 21st of December 2012. But the reason I’m not too bothered is that, although this is possible, it’s extremely unlikely. Remember these kinds of events may happen once every 100 million years, that’s roughly a 1 in 37 billion chance that we’ll be hit by an asteroid on the 21st of December. An asteroid strike was predicted by many in the year 2000, obviously it didn’t happen. Chances are it won’t in 2012.
So overall, solar storms could damage our electricity grid but its very unlikely, and an asteroid or comet strike could end our civilisation, but probably won’t in 2012.