Extremely Plausible, and Some Improbable, Ways the World Will End
Our planet will cease to exist one day. It's just a matter of when. Everything meets its end, but the methods and reasons are impossible to predict. Whether it comes from the cosmos or is already on Earth waiting to take us out, there are plenty of theories about how our planet will meet its demise. And whether it's a man-made or natural disaster, we've compiled a list of plausible, improbable and highly possible ways the world could end one day.
The Population Tipping Point
Our planet's resources are finite. There are around 7.7 billion people on Earth. And the world's population is expected to reach 9.8 billion by 2050. According to a United Nations report, longer life expectancy is causing a considerable increase in the number of elderly folks on the planet. Will there eventually be so many people that we run out of resources and die off?
Population control presents its own problems. And we continue to argue about it with no common ground or logical conclusion in sight.
Natural and Human-made Environmental Toxins
Environmental toxins, like BPA and pesticides, are human-made. Toxins also come from nature in the form of lead, mercury and formaldehyde. These chemicals are cancer-causing and can lead to organ failure. They’re also endocrine disruptors and can cause various developmental and reproductive problems.
Endocrine disruptors are in the materials used to make plastic bottles, detergents, cosmetics, pesticides and even toys. BPA is considered to be the most dangerous — specifically to pregnant or breastfeeding women. On a global scale, environmental toxins have the potential to decimate the human population and the environment itself.
The Changing Climate
There’s a consensus in the scientific community that Earth's climate is changing. And humans are one of the causes of this phenomenon. People usually argue about two things regarding climate change: the amount of responsibility placed on us and the planet's tendency to drastically change without our help. These points are moot when it comes to our world's survival, though.
There’s enough evidence to correlate the current warming trend with the Industrial Revolution. Although some greenhouse gases are essential, burned fossil fuels and methane-filled cows aren't helping, and rising sea levels are just the beginning. Climate change can lead to some pretty drastic damage — including the potential end of humankind.
The Collapse of Ecosystems
Experts expect the extinction of a million species within a few decades. A United Nations report determined that extinction rates are hundreds of times higher now than they were at any point in the last 10 million years. One-third of marine mammals are at risk. And we’ve taken over plenty of land, making ecosystems uninhabitable for millions of species.
More than one million acres of Canadian forests are logged each year to create toilet tissue and other single-use products. South America's lush rainforests are in danger of being burned or stripped. Oceans are being overfished and poisoned. Nothing can survive with no healthy ecosystem — people included.
Mass Epidemics and Pandemics
Much of the world’s population lives close together in big cities and booming industrial areas. We’re just one sneeze away from a global pandemic. In 1918, Spanish influenza killed between 40 and 50 million people. There’s currently a worldwide discussion about the effects and use of vaccines. Some people say they're for government control and cause autism, but this has been debunked over and over.
Vaccines only work when everyone gets them. Otherwise, the disease can mutate, rendering the vaccine obsolete. You can wash your hands more, but the risk of a severe pandemic only increases. An apocalyptic outbreak can arrive at any time. You should still wash your hands.
Biological and Chemical Warfare
The United States has been at war for 93% of its existence. We have known 21 years of peace. The odds of war killing us are massive, and chemical warfare is a probable option. Chemical weapons include all toxic chemicals and their precursors. Even protests often lead to the deployment of riot control agents, a little-known classified chemical weapon, so it’s not surprising that various governments have bigger, badder options on deck for large-scale use.
The U.S. government estimates that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has used chemical weapons almost 50 times. Nearly 500,000 Syrians have died as a result, with over 10 million people displaced. Imagine what would happen if the whole world went to war this way.
There are currently over 13,000 nuclear warheads in existence; 3,750 of them are considered active. Over 90% of those nuclear weapons are owned by the United States and Russia. Only five of the eight countries with nuclear weapons have signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.
Due to increased tension in political rhetoric and failed nuclear deals, the Doomsday Clock has since remained at two minutes to midnight. The chances of a nuclear war with Iran and North Korea increase by the day. One retaliatory strike could lead to a barrage of worldwide atomic detonations.
An Earthquake's Fault
Earth's surface is continually changing. Its oceanic crust and continental crust are thick tectonic plates. And they’re always moving, adjusting and sliding underneath or atop each other — slowly. Tectonic plates create the majestic mountains that appear in our incredible landscapes.
They also cause the world to rumble, cracking faults of all sizes. The San Andreas Fault in California is the boundary between the Pacific Plate and the North American Plate. And it's long overdue for a shift. The results could cause a massive disaster for the Pacific Rim region.
A Direct Asteroid Hit
An asteroid is any planetoid orbiting the sun that’s greater than one meter in diameter. Many in our solar system orbit within the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. The general consensus among scientists suggests that one of these guys hit Earth and caused the extinction of the dinosaurs.
As of 2016, scientists have located over 14,000 near-Earth asteroids. Almost 1,000 of those are over one kilometer in diameter. They seem to hit Earth every 500,000 years. A 10-kilometer asteroid could cause complete, planet-wide devastation, both in the initial impact and the ensuing destruction and starvation.
An earthquake or an asteroid may not cause the world to end, but a resulting tsunami is inescapable and will likely result in millions of deaths. Tsunamis are massive waves — almost like walls of water — caused by earthquakes and undersea volcanic eruptions. If an asteroid struck the middle of the ocean, the water it displaced could create massive tsunamis.
The world's biggest tsunami occurred in 1958 following an earthquake in Lituya Bay, Alaska. It reached a height of 1,720 feet above sea level, stripping every tree in its wake. A tsunami big enough wouldn't give us a chance to escape.
Around 1,500 active volcanoes exist on Earth. One of the most famous eruptions of all time happened in Pompeii in Italy. The ash and soot from Mount Vesuvius buried the ancient city, killing 2,000 people. And that was just one mountain. A mass eruption of all of Earth's volcanoes isn’t out of the question — think of the potential destruction.
Mount St. Helens erupted for nine hours in 1980, producing more than 540 million tons of ash alone. One tectonic plate shift can push our planet's mantle to the surface. If the molten lava and ash don't kill everyone, the resulting environmental devastation just might.
If Earth isn't destroyed by 1,500 volcanoes, it might die from the eruption of one supervolcano. There are 20 known supervolcanoes in the world, including those in Indonesia, New Zealand, Italy and Yellowstone National Park in the United States.
Super-eruptions only occur around once every 100,000 years. The bad news is that the last super-eruption happened 640,000 years ago. On its own, Yellowstone might spell the end for the U.S. if it erupts. The effect it could have on the rest of the world would depend on the rest of the world's response.
Magnetic Field Reversal
The reversal of Earth's magnetic poles happens often. It's a common occurrence — in geologic timelines, anyway. Based on geologic evidence, the north and south poles have flipped every 200,000 to 300,000 years over the last 20 million years. But the most recent magnetic pole reversal happened 780,000 years ago, so we’re definitely due for another.
Things like climate change, earthquakes and large volcanic eruptions have all been known to cause a shift in the planet’s magnetic field. Even though the magnetic field is at risk, there’s no indication that it’ll vanish entirely. Should it diminish enough, though, the planet will be vulnerable.
Cooling the Molten Core
Earth's core has been continuously (but very slowly) cooling down since the planet first formed. It’ll eventually become wholly cooled and solid. This will have a drastic impact on what happens on the planet's surface. Scientists theorize our planet's atmosphere and surface would become something like those of Mars.
We don't have any tools that allow us to X-ray the crust and mantle. We have no idea exactly what's happening in our planet's core. We do know that, right now, Earth's core is not fully molten. But the cooling center will one day alter the magnetic field that keeps our world protected from extra radiation from the sun.
Direct Gamma Rays
Gamma rays aren't all bad. When applied properly, they can treat various forms of cancer. But gamma-ray bursts from the sun could eliminate diseases and all life on Earth. These solar explosions are observable across the galaxy. They’re the brightest electromagnetic occurrences in the known universe and can last from seconds to hours.
A gamma ray that’s extremely high in energy can destroy everything in its path. It can vaporize bones and teeth while destroying all living cells. Should life survive on the other side of the planet that didn’t get hit during the onslaught, a gamma ray burst could still cause cancer or gene mutations in survivors.
Solar geoengineering consists of technologies used to manipulate the environment to combat the effects of climate change. It's not believed to be a total solution, but it could critically supplement more useful strategies. It's comprised of two broad categories: carbon geoengineering, or carbon dioxide removal, and solar geoengineering, also known as solar radiation management.
However, climate analysts warn of the threat of geoengineering, specifically solar radiation management. It involves releasing particles into Earth's stratosphere to deflect the sun's light. The results are unpredictable. The effect could lead to an overcooling of Earth, making it uninhabitable for people.
Death and Expansion of the Sun
Our sun is going to die. It's just a matter of when. The end of the star will happen once the fuel in its interior runs out. The thermonuclear reactions that power our planet will then cease to exist. The sun will begin to expand into a red giant, slowly swallowing up Mercury and Venus before consuming Earth.
When our sun dies, it’ll eject massive amounts of gas and dust into space. The resulting planetary nebula will remain faint and hidden from any distant civilizations. There will be no evidence our societies and struggles even existed.
Frequently, stars explode into awe-inspiring supernovas from which nothing can escape. If our sun exploded, we would certainly perish in an instant. The sudden decrease in the sun's mass could cause Earth to lose orbit and float aimlessly through the cosmos.
Even a star that’s 30 light-years away from Earth could wreak havoc on our planet. Dr. Mark Reid, a senior astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, says it could cause mass extinctions, destroy the ozone layer and fill our atmosphere with nitrous oxide.
Earth's Orbital Exit
If Earth's orbital speed decreased, it might fly right into the sun. Earth orbits the sun at a velocity of 30 km/s. If the orbit suddenly stopped, the atmosphere and everything on the planet would still have that same inertia. Everything on the planet's leading side would launch into space, while everything else would be crushed against the planet.
With no centripetal force, we would be waving at Venus in 41 days before reaching Mercury in 57. The journey into the sun would take around 65 days, with Earth reaching 3,000 degrees Celsius.
Collision With a Rogue Planet
A quick Google search will take you down a rabbit hole of theories about Planet X. Doomsdayers also refer to this planet as Nibiru. Planet X is believed to have a long, elliptical orbit around the sun, which is why we never see it. Theorists expect it to cause a disastrous encounter known as the Nibiru cataclysm.
This would involve Earth and Planet X colliding. Although the existence of Nibiru is disputed by scientists, planets can hit each other. This collision would spell the end for all of us.
War of the Worlds
The next space race will see probes, telescopes and missions beyond our galaxy. The likelihood that we’re alone in the universe diminishes with each new galactic discovery. Aliens may not be the short, gray creatures that read our minds or give us probes of our own. But they could still spell the destruction of our known existence.
Aliens could very quickly arrive as tiny, rage-fueled creatures hell-bent on our demise — or even non-sentient beings that spread a deadly disease. The point is this: The real war of the worlds might not work out in our favor.
It’s not a common fear, but it is one some people hold: the rise of robotic overlords. Technological advances in robotics improve by the day. Today, robots are being designed for search and rescue missions, industrial purposes and domestic assistance. Of course, their combat and military applications are endless.
The Predator Drone changed war forever, too. Our leaders can now invade a country and take out targets from miles up in the air. Drones can be equipped with nuclear and chemical weapons. All it takes is for one bad player in control of a robot to spell the end of humanity.
Nanotechnology is the manipulation of matter on an atomic and molecular scale. Nanotech has its known benefits for medical procedures, creating safe alternatives to conventional surgery. The ability to see and manipulate atoms is beyond our initial comprehension. But we do know that its applications could also have much more unfavorable outcomes.
If nanobots can kill cancer cells, they can also inject life-threatening diseases into healthy cells — not to mention all of the clandestine operations these tiny terrors could embark on, meaning the end of privacy and sovereignty as we know it. Nanotech can be used to create economic disarray, pollution and tiny weapons.
Artificial Intelligence Backfires
With seemingly minute-by-minute updates to robotics and nanotechnology, artificial intelligence might be a big threat to our survival. An AI "being" can integrate itself into a network and acquire valuable information, including Social Security numbers and nuclear codes. All it takes is for the AI to become self-aware and consider humans a threat.
It would be somewhat poetic for the thing that we created to eliminate threats to eventually see us as a threat to its own existence, right? Both Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk at various times appeared to believe the danger is real, regardless of the preventative measures we enact.
Worldwide Mental Breakdown
Perhaps the likeliest of reasons for our world's end is in our own minds. Depression is increasingly common in people over the age of 12. And people with depression are three times more likely to develop an opioid addiction. Aging with depression also leads to more Alzheimer's cases.
Mental health disorders in adults are impacting more and more people, and nothing is being done about it on a large scale. There’s decreasing access to care. It wouldn't be surprising if humanity ate itself from the inside. Ignoring treatment could lead to a complete mental breakdown worldwide.
Particle Accelerator Mishap
A particle accelerator throws subatomic particles into extremely high velocities for research in particle physics. They’re generally used for high-energy physics, isotope production, low-energy machines and particle therapy. Common examples of particle accelerators even exist in television sets and X-ray generators. But they get much bigger and badder.
CERN operates the Large Hadron Collider, the biggest in the world. It’s located 100 meters underground. We don't know what happens when we collide particles at those speeds. The collider creating a black hole or a door to another dimension is improbable, but not impossible.
The True, False Vacuum
The second law of thermodynamics suggests that energy wants to move from a stronger state to a weaker state. Matter is most stable in its lowest energy state. The false vacuum theory suggests that matter exists in a false low state and still contains the stronger potential energy.
If the energy is triggered, it could create a light-speed tidal wave of destruction that vaporizes anything in its way. Following the damage would be a void from which no life or light could exist.
Black Hole Swallowing
Our world could very well get sucked up by a massive black hole traveling through spacetime. The properties of gravity state that a super-compacted mass can deform space and time to create a black hole. They’re near-impossible to observe and could sneak up on our solar system without warning.
A black hole's gravitational fields are so strong that not even light can escape at the event horizon. Our planet could get pulled into another section of the universe or a parallel universe or disintegrate into tiny subatomic particles. This would be the end as we know it.
The Big Rip Theory
Think of the Big Bang, but the opposite. The Big Rip is a hypothetical model having to do with the fate of the entire universe. In this cosmological model, everything that exists in the cosmos, from galaxies to spacetime itself, would be ripped apart by the expanding universe.
This theory relies on a type of dark energy that could potentially overwhelm all of the powers that hold our universe together. Even with all of the current astronomy data available, there’s still a slight chance that our entire existence could meet its end this way.
Living in the Matrix
Playing a video game can get a person lost in a virtual world. The graphics and virtual-reality capabilities seem to improve with each release. According to Elon Musk, simulations will inevitably become "indistinguishable from reality." What if humanity only exists in a giant simulation or real-life video game?
Musk concluded that the likelihood of that being the case is just one small chance out of billions. The simulation argument came from an Oxford philosopher in a 2003 paper. Perhaps VR technology and the ability to map the entire human brain could find us in a simulation without us ever even realizing it.