Doug's Darkworld

War, Science, and Philosophy in a Fractured World.

Ten Global Calamities – existential disasters facing the human race

with 13 comments


OK, if I’m going to go for five depressing posts in a row, why mess around? Here is my list of the top ten possible calamities facing the human race. I’m defining a calamity as a terrible event that could kill huge numbers of people, millions or more, in a very short space of time (say in less than a year) over a large portion of the globe. I have tried to stay within the bounds of what has already happened in Earth’s history or we have a pretty good scientific idea is possible. Nonetheless some of these are rather speculative. I have stayed within the present, the Sun’s ultimate demise or the heat death of the Universe aren’t something we need to be worried about in the near future.

Speaking of worrying, I have ranked them roughly in order of magnitude, from least to worst. I actually wrote this list some years ago, I see now that others have touched on the idea. History channel has apparently been running a show on mega disasters, and here is another author’s idea of the ten worst list. Mine is a little different than his. Some of my items are a little depressing or disturbing I suppose, read at your own risk…

The Top Ten Very Bad Things

1. Mad Scientists/terrorism. In the movies terrorists and mad scientists threaten to blow up the earth all the time. In real life, the threat posed by same is considerably more modest. Terrorists have killed very few people in history, governments and run of the mill criminals kill far more. The typical person is more likely to be hit by a bus. And while the means to commit mass carnage do exist, they are still under the control of governments, not terrorists.

So for now, I regard this as a modest threat. Not impossible, but unlikely. There are theoretical and speculative ways that a nut could build a WMD in their garage. This day could even come tomorrow I suppose, and that’s why this item makes the list.

2. Greenland and/or the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) collapse into the ocean, raising the world’s sea levels by feet or tens of feet in a matter of days or less. This would be a global calamity of terrible proportions, even if people were able to escape the rapidly rising waters, millions or more would likely die in the subsequent world wide depression and/or war. How likely is this to occur in our lifetimes? Who knows, but unfortunately the odds are rising. For now though I will leave it near the bottom of the list, I wouldn’t want to be accused of being alarmist. I mean, this calamity is a consequence of global warming…

3. Emergent diseases. Could some terrible contagious form of Ebola or a mutant fatal flu emerge tomorrow and kill a huge proportion of the human race while we were still trying to name the disease? You betcha. And it doesn’t even have to be a human disease, a fatal rice, wheat, or cattle disease would have pretty much the same effect. (Best not to even think about a barley or hops plague.) How likely is this? It’s inevitable. Does this mean we’re screwed? Probably. On the plus side, we have legions of medical personnel constantly on guard against this calamity. So if you know a doctor, your odds are better.

4. War. Yes, the second of the four horsemen makes the list. Is war likely to do us in? No, most of us will die in our sleep. And historically wars barely even make a blip on the death radar. Still, large wars can be locally very bad, the tens of millions of people who died in world war two would not be consoled knowing they were but a blip on the radar. The good news? This is the last item on the list where an individual can greatly increase their individual chance of survival. If there is a big war…stay a good distance away from it. See, easy? After this it gets a lot harder to avoid the problems…

5. Volcano. Could a volcano spell bad news for the human race? More than one civilization has collapsed because of a volcano. The Minoans were likely done in by Thera. Krakatoa likely caused world wide calamity in 535 AD. Geologists tell of of ancient eruptions of almost unimaginable scale. Yosemite is one. A Canary Islands eruption and subsequent Atlantic wide tsunamis is another. How likely is this? Maybe tomorrow, maybe a millennium, maybe a million years.

6. Asteroid/Comet…death from above. Number 5 was death from below, there is also the possibility of death from above. How likely is it? Who knows. Things hit Earth with the power of a nuclear bomb about once a century, so eventually a city will get popped. Bigger events do happen. North America might very well have suffered massive damage for a huge impact explosion even about 11,000 years ago, killing much of the fauna of North America. Including the Clovis culture apparently. Could it happen again? Yes, but at least efforts are being made to prevent it. (There are also some more exotic ways the universe could conceivably destroy earth, I’ll cover that in a subsequent post.)

7. Methane release. Could farting cows destroy the human race? Don’t be silly, of course not. However the continental shelves contain vast amounts of methane stored in frozen methyl hydrate deposits. How stable are these deposits? Again, no one really knows, but it has been speculated that a minor increase in the ocean’s temperatures might do the trick. And if it happened all at once, things like breathing would be a problem for awhile. It’s been speculated that some of Earth’s mass extinctions were indeed caused by this type of event, research continues.

8. Doomsday device. While a nut can’t blow up the Earth…yet…concurrently some governments could do the trick. During the height of the cold war it was speculated that a cobalt nuclear device could be built so powerful and designed to create so much lethal long term fallout that it would effectively end most life on Earth if detonated. There’s even rumours that the USA and the Soviet Union actually deployed these devices in the sixties. We can only hope that no government ever gets so paranoid that they would want to do something like this, and that if any devices ever were built, they have been safely deactivated.

9. Aliens. Could aliens destroy the Earth? Certainly. While it seems increasingly unlikely that aliens exist in our part of the universe, if they did exist and wanted to harm us, it would be simple for a starfaring race. A modest chunk of rock accelerated to a modest fraction of the speed of light would do the trick. We wouldn’t see it coming and it would all be over so fast that we wouldn’t notice. Fortunately the fact that I am writing this and you are reading it indicates the odds are good that there are no nearby aliens with hostile intent. (Or maybe they are just waiting for us to fatten ourselves up properly before harvest.)

10. Strange Matter Experiments. Scientists are building increasingly large machines to produce increasingly exotic forms of matter that haven’t existed since the first few moments after the Big Bang. It has been seriously suggested that we risk creating matter or altering reality in such a way that it might have global consequences. Earth crushed to the size of a pinhead for example, or matter destabilized so that the elements that make up matter simply dissolve. Again, we would have no warning, the effects from such an accident would likely propagate at the speed of light, destroying Earth and possibly much more. Even the entire universe as we know it could be destroyed. Yikes.

How likely is this? Not very scientists assure us. And we can see a pretty big chunk of the universe now, and it’s looking pretty stable. Still, it does unnerve me a bit that humans are conducting experiments that could conceivably destroy the universe, however unlikely it may be.

Tomorrow I’ll look at some of the more exotic possibilities that didn’t make this list. Sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite!

(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It is not being used for profit and is central to illustrating the post. My efforts to determine who the copyright holder is have failed, if anyone knows I will properly attribute it or remove it as the case may be.)

Written by unitedcats

October 11, 2007 at 8:35 am

Posted in enviroment, Science, World

13 Responses

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  1. You left out the politically frustrated mad scientist who works with viruses and bacteria. Mix a smidgen of smallpox DNA, a bit of Ebola DNA, a tad of HIV DNA, what have you, and presto, no more humans. Probably the single most effective WMD that we can create. It only takes one smart guy with a little access and an overabundance of pure logic. Humans bad. Humans destroying world. Humans go bye-bye.

    See ya later. I gotta get back to the lab.


    October 11, 2007 at 11:29 am

  2. I have notified the proper authorities and an elite team of Blackwater mercenaries in black biohazard suits will be visiting your lab shortly. Once again a mad scientist has been foiled because he couldn’t help but brag about his evil plan before it came to fruition. This is why it’s only number 1 on my list. Thanks for dropping by. ;) –Doug


    October 11, 2007 at 11:57 am

  3. Did I mention my neat little Andromeda bug spinoff that eats black plastic in seconds? Not only does it denude Blackwater operatives, it also reduces SUV tires to dust.


    October 11, 2007 at 5:26 pm

  4. You left out Hollywood and its wholesale dilution of brain cells to much of western culture.


    October 12, 2007 at 8:50 am

  5. I appreciate your war survival strategy, though I suppose not everyone has the ability to move away from war, or at least to do so in time to avoid it. Still, I cannot fathom why people would intentionally want to move towards it.


    October 14, 2007 at 2:38 am

  6. I was being a little facetious. Some societies are far more militarized than others and far more supportive of war in general. Why this is so is something I have been meaning to speculate upon, though with weapons being the world’s second biggest industry (with presumably lobbyists in the same proportion) some of it is pretty obvious.


    October 14, 2007 at 6:42 am

  7. Is human propensity for endless warfare simply due to the profit motive? I’d appreciate your further speculation (1/2 to full blog, perhaps) as to why war and violence are so prevalent when they bring so much misery to so many. Yes it’s profitable…but couldn’t peace be made to be profitable? (perhaps not)


    October 17, 2007 at 6:42 am

  8. Good point, I’ll definitely write a “why war?” post, thanks for the suggestion. —Doug


    October 17, 2007 at 7:48 am

  9. Good day! I would like to ask permission to publish your “Ten Global Calamities… Race” in our school paper. I find your ideas sound and the details are very educational. We’re publishing articles on global issues and I was browsing the net for some related articles and found your blog. Please reply to my email should you permit us to publish your post. Thanks so much!

    Jerry M. Noveno
    Adviser, The Bicol Scholar
    Philippine Science High School – Bicol Region Campus
    Goa, Camarines Sur
    4422 Philippines

  10. […] article in question was my Ten Global Calamities post. I guess it will stimulate discussion or such among high school students. I’m not […]

  11. […] also a series of more or less exotic calamities that could destroy the USA, again, quantifying them in any meaningful way is mostly a matter of […]

  12. Personally I believe exactly that. The end will come sooner than we think, obviously at the hands of a human. Alas we are the most disgusting race conceivable. Putting religion and all the other instituional beliefs of “man” aside , which are indocrinated into us from the moment of concpetion, I do believe the end of humans is necessary and inevitable. Ideally technology is there to further advance our species as a collective however we all know idealism has no place in this world anymore. Unfortunately the only thing that brings the collective together, temporarily influencing us to put all our countless ridiculous prejudices aside,is alas a catastrophic event. i.e. many of the top 10 fears you speak of.
    I would like to add to that list. I have been pondering how to go about speeding up the demise of this disgusting species.
    1) Set off an atomic bomb at Yellowstone park in the states. That should help along the super volcano “threat” we have there. That would most certainly destroy all life on this planet as we know it, maybe not the roaches.
    2) The super virus or biological warfare you speak of. I’m confident there is a biological weapon out there that could eliminate all.
    3) Wait and watch the human race destroy itself over the next few hundred years. Personally this is too slow for me and kinda goes against my personal goals.
    4)Blowing up the moon, or even knocking it off course, would cause serious problems over time.

    The problem with terrorist organisations is that they are obviously quite ineffective at their strategies and plans. Alas they have the resources and fundamentalists however always lacking the aptitude to actually pull off their goals.
    I mean how hard can it be to attack these strategic points. I understand they are handicapped in the fact that most of the world has this stigma against arabs and are constantly surveilling them.How about these terror groups start “employing” people of different cultures,religions and geographies.
    So if there are any cells truly comitted to this purpose then please don’t heistate in contacting me.
    If you’re good you will be able to find me :)

    Laters and don’t worry.
    The end is inevitable.
    Thanks “g-d”


    July 9, 2008 at 9:05 am

    • hindi naman lahat ng nakasulat dito ay epekto ng global calamity of human race, sana ibahin niyo ang tungkol nito.


      February 28, 2011 at 5:14 am

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