End of the World now? Ten of the greatest threats that could wipe out all life on Earth

End of the World

Goodbye to all that: A large asteroid striking Earth would be catastrophic

The End of the world? Nobody can say we didn’t have a good innings. After all, the human race has been here for the best part of 2.8 million years.

But all good things must come to an end and, sooner or later, so must humanity’s stint on Earth.

Doom-mongers predicted a massive asteroid would slam into Earth some time last week.

And extinction by space rock is also the subject of tonight’s new Sky comedy You, Me and the Apocalypse, which tells of an eight mile wide comet just 34 days away obliterating us all.

But there are so many other ways in which the human race could be wiped out any day now.

From catastrophic climate change to black holes and robot wars, here are 10 apocalyptic visions that could end the world as we know it…


Borrowed time: Polar bears are in trouble thanks to global warming – and we could be next

Global warming

If the ice in Earth’s polar caps melts it will cause the oceans to rise as much as 300 feet, which would be catastrophic to human civilization.

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More than 75 per cent of the world’s population lives below this altitude, including London and most other major cities.

Meanwhile, with water evaporating faster, trapping in more heat and driving temperatures still higher, experts warn that Earth could end up like Venus, where the high on a typical day is 900 degrees Fahrenheit.



A hotter planet could also unleash the spread of infectious diseases, the acidification of the oceans, and an increase in droughts and famines, as well as floods and land erosion.

A global temperature rise of just six per cent will be enough to wipe out just about every life form on the planet. Scientists at the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) recently gave a five per cent chance that the Earth’s temperature will exceed 6.4 per cent by 2100.


In an instant: We wouldn’t know about a gamma ray burst until it hit us

Gamma ray burst

Gamma-ray bursts are flashes of gamma-ray light, probably caused by the merging of two collapsed stars, and are the most powerful explosions of energy in the universe – as much as ten quadrillion times as energetic as the sun.

So far, the bursts – which are detected from earth about once a day – have happened in distant galaxies millions of light-years away. If such an event were to happen closer to home, the intense flash of gamma rays illuminating the earth for ten seconds would cook the atmosphere and destroy the ozone layer, causing a massive extinction event.

Astronomers point out double stars are almost completely undetectable and we would have no advance warning until the moment it hits us.

Coughs and sneezes: Pandemics have wiped out millions in the past


Throughout history many deadly pathogens have emerged which have wreaked havoc on the human race.

The Black Plague killed one in every four Europeans in the 14th century, while in just two years from 1918 Spanish flu took at least 50 million lives.

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Recent possible pandemics, including SARS , bird flu, and MERS, a corona-virus which originated in Saudi Arabia, have eventually died down, but experts say it is only a matter of time before one goes global.

If nature wasn’t enough to worry about, scientists have been accused of engineering mutant versions of diseases which, if they escaped from the lab, could threaten the future of humanity.

Last year, after researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison created a life-threatening virus that closely resembled the 1918 Spanish flu, many disease experts were appalled.

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Simon Wain-Hobson, a virologist at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, said: “It’s madness, folly. If society, the intelligent layperson, understood what was going on, they would say, ‘What the F are you doing?’”.


Evolutionary upgrade: Could we be replaced by quicker-thinking machines?

Robot ascension

The Terminator may be science fiction, but robotic killing machines capable of thinking and acting on their own are not far from becoming a reality.

The United Nations recently called for a ban on killer robots – presumably because experts feared that several countries were developing them.

Inventor Elon Musk, co-founder of Paypal, said last year that artificial intelligence might be the “greatest existential threat” that humans face.

And Stephen Hawking recently said: “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race. Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would be superseded.”

Sucked in: There are more black holes than previously thought

Black hole

Our galaxy is full of black holes, formed when giant stars collapse in on themselves, and whose gravity is so strong they swallow everything, even the light that may betray their presence.

In July this year scientists from Durham University discovered five previously unidentified “supermassive” black holes, billions of times the size of our sun, increasing fears one could come closer to earth than previously anticipated.


George Lansbury, from the university’s Centre for Extragalactic Astronomy, said: “Although we have only detected five, when we extrapolate across the whole universe then the predicted numbers are huge.”

Such a black hole wouldn’t need to actually swallow us up. One passing nearby could eject Earth from the solar system and send us hurtling into deep space.

Out with a bang: The threat of nuclear destruction did not end with the Cold War

Global war

Many scientists are still worried about the classic end-of-the-world threat: global nuclear war.

There are massive stockpiles of nuclear weapons around the globe which could trigger a catastrophe if they fell into the wrong hands.

Currently, nine countries are known to have nuclear capabilities, including Russia, Pakistan and North Korea, which between them possess around 16,300 nuclear weapons.

In 2008, the Physics Today journal concluded that the detonation of 100 nuclear bombs – a fraction of the number out there – would bring about a “nuclear winter” causing temperatures to drop to the lowest in 1,000 years, and “likely eliminate the majority of the human population.”

Biological weapons are perhaps an even greater threat to our existence, as they are easier to develop. If anthrax, for example, were released into the air it could cause fatalities in 90 per cent of the population exposed to it.


North goes south: A pole reversal would mean there was nothing to stop these cosmic rays slamming into the Earth’s magnetic field

Magnetic reversal

Every few hundred thousand years the planet’s magnetic field dwindles to almost nothing, then over a century gradually reappears with the north and south poles flipped.

We know that there have been about 170 magnetic pole reversals during the last 100 million years, and the last major reversal was 781,000 years ago – meaning that the next one is well overdue.

New research published last year from the European Space Agency (ESA) shows that the Earth’s magnetic field is weakening 10 times faster than we previously thought, and that it might flip within the next 100 years.

Why might such an event threaten our survival? The magnetic field deflects particle storms and cosmic rays from the sun, as well as even more energetic particles from deep space.

Scientist claims that without this magnetic protection, these particles would strike Earth’s atmosphere, eroding the ozone layer with a number of disastrous consequences to life as we know it.

Rocks off: An eruption at Yellowstone is overdue


Volcanoes have form when it comes to making entire species extinct. The Permo-Triassic Extinction – the biggest extinction event of all time, when 95 per cent of all Earth’s species were wiped out 252 million years ago – coincided with the largest known volcano eruption in Earth history, in today’s Siberia.

Many believe the next Earth-changing eruption is long overdue, and point to the supervolcano in American’s Yellowstone National Park as the most likely to destroy us.

The Yellowstone volcano erupts with a near-clockwork cycle of every 600,000 years – and that last eruption was more than 640,000 years ago. Scientists have discovered that the ground in Yellowstone is 74cm higher than it was in 1923, indicating a massive swelling underneath the park.

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Experts predict that when it blows its top again the consequences for the world will be catastrophic. Within minutes of the explosion tens of thousands would be dead and the long-term effects would be even more devastating. The sun would be blocked by ash, temperatures would plummet by 21 degrees, rain would turn to acid, and most if not all of the world’s humans would be wiped out.


Cosmic thieves: Aliens could come to plunder our resources

Alien invasion

There is every chance that, somewhere in billions of galaxies, intelligent beings much more superior to ourselves do exist. So if aliens did finally arrive at planet Earth in large numbers, what can we most likely expect?

Stephen Hawking, who this year helped launch a major new effort to search for alien life in the cosmos, thinks it more likely that such creatures would come to Earth in search of resources and bent on our destruction. He said: “If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans.”

Other cosmologists go further, supposing that extraterrestrial invaders might plunder a vital natural resource, such as the water from our oceans, bring with them pests with a taste for human flesh or upset our planet or solar system causing Earth’s destruction.

Crashing out: Last week’s asteroid warnings were a false alarm but it could still happen

Asteroid impact

An asteroid big enough to wipe out civilisation on Earth, experts agree, would need to be at least a mile across – and that kind of impact only happens once every million years or less.

It is believed the dinosaurs were wiped out by a six-mile-wide asteroid which slammed into Earth 66 million years ago.

In a paper by Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute, researchers explained the greatest danger will be “clouds of dust projected into the upper atmosphere” creating an ‘impact winter’, affecting climate, and food supplies, and create political instability.

And Bruce Willis can’t come to the rescue either – physicists claim it would be impossible to nuke a Earth-destroying-sized asteroid hurtling towards us.



, Mirror


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