Apocalypse When?

To the BBC for a discussion on the coming Apocalypse (nothing like a cheery start to the New Year). In case you hadn’t heard, the world is due to end on 21 December 2012, at least if you subscribe to the Mayan long-count calendar. What, wondered a bright young BBC Wales producer pondering the vacuum that is New Year programming, would be likely to bring about such a cataclysm? Assembling three of the finest minds known to science, or at least Googlemail, he came up with the following list:

  1. An Asteroid
  2. A Massive Solar Flare
  3. A Pandemic

No prizes for guessing which scenario I addressed. First up though was Jay Tate, the director of the Spaceguard Centre in Wales. Jay and his partner Anne spend their nights peering at the Milky Way from their observatory on a hilltop in Knighton, Powys. Rather than searching for tiny pinpricks of light, however, their efforts are directed at unusual dark patches in space that could signal the presence of a massive asteroid on a collision course with earth. Such collisions occur with surprising regularity. Usually, as with the meteoroid that exploded over Siberia in 1908 the effects are localised. But according to Tate anything over 1 km in diameter would have an impact big enough to plunge the world into a new Dark Age, while anything in excess of 5km would almost certainly signal the extinction of the human race.

The good news is that should we detect a Near Earth Object (NEO) that large heading for earth or – God forbid – one the size of the massive asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs during the Cretaceous Period, we could probably do something about it. The trick, it seems, is not to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike – according to Tate, that would simply turn the NEO into a ‘highly unpredictable cluster bomb’. Far better  to give the asteroid a gentle ‘nudge’ and deflect it harmlessly into outer space or, failing that, towards another (preferably uninhabited) planet.

A solar flare, at first glance, look like a rather less promising candidate for the Mayan Apocalypse. The biggest recorded solar flare or coronal mass ejection (CME) we know of occurred on 1 September 1859. The CME was so powerful that it fried telegraph wires across north America and generated an Aurora Borealis seen as far south as Cuba. No one died, however.

But that was before the internet and global satellite communication systems. Today, the world is so much more technologically dependent, argued the BBC’s second expert Dr Mario Bisi, that a large release of magnetic energy over the poles could knock out  everything from mobile phones to the Global Positioning Systems we depend on for the delivery of fresh vegetables to supermarkets. And unlike a massive asteroid strike we would probably have only a matter of hours to prepare.

The problem is that records of sun spot activity only go back 400 years or so, so forecasting when or what may happen is an inexact science. What we do know is that solar activity follows an eleven-year cycle. 2011 marked the end of the solar minimum and we are now entering the solar maximum, but whether the height of activity will occur at the end of this year – as the Mayan calendar suggests – or the end of 2013 or 2014, no one can say.

Predicting the next pandemic is also a fool’s game, albeit for different reasons. In the case of influenza – the most likely candidate for a viral Apocalypse – we have records dating back to the 16th century. These tell us that flu pandemics have occurred throughout history with an average interval of 20-40 years. The big one was the 1918 pandemic which wiped out 50 million people worldwide.  In contrast the 1957 and 1968 pandemics killed just 1m each. However, scientists still have little idea what triggers these periodic mutations.

The good news is that the most recent pandemic, caused by H1N1 swine flu, occurred in 2009, so its unlikely that  there’ll be another pandemic as early as 2012. The bad news is that Dutch and American scientists recently succeeded in engineering the H5N1 bird flu virus so as to make it airborne. While details of their experiments are currently under wraps pending review by biosecurity experts, the fear is that should the virus escape the laboratory or the details of their experiments fall into the wrong hands, H5N1 could easily become transmissible between humans – an event that would make 1918 look like a dress rehearsal.

At the end of our discussion, I rather envied the Mayans. When they established their civilization in Mesoamerica 4,000 years ago they didn’t have a clue about about NEOs or CMEs. Nor did the Mayans worry about whether their chickens might be harbouring a deadly flu virus. All that concerned them was whether the sun would rise tomorrow and whether there would be sufficient rain for their crops. As for Apocalypse, well in 2010 BC the year 2012 AD must have appeared unimaginably distant. By contrast, today the Apocalypse is all too imaginable.

So enjoy 2012 while it lasts. And here’s to 2013 – probably.

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