Apocalypse Now?


(Composed from images by Gopal Venkatesan via Getty Images and NASA)

By Kent McDonald

T.S. Eliot probably had it right in The Hollow Men with his assertion that the end of the world would be heralded not by a bang, but a whimper.  Nevertheless, proponents of catastrophic events are popping up with ever-increasing frequency.  Wild speculation abounds, with the most popular theories implicating galactic alignment, rogue solar flares, and encounters with the putative Planet X.  At first glance, there exist three main tenets to each theory: annihilation of life on Earth, December 21, 2012, and absolute denial of accepted scientific theory.

Life on Earth will not continue indefinitely.  Stars have a finite lifespan, and our Sun’s is projected to expire in approximately 10 billion years.  About five billion years prior to this, however, it should expand to 250 times its current radius, which would engulf Earth in its current orbit.  Looking on the bright side, life on Earth will probably be eradicated about one billion years from now when the Sun’s intensity has sufficiently increased to evaporate all water on the planet.

Clearly, these theories are ultimately rooted in fact.  However, they occur in a future so distant it is irrelevant to the next million generations of humans.  In an effort to achieve relevance and thus notoriety, the timescale of the apocalypse must therefore be accelerated, and it is here that
problems arise.

The fascination with the upcoming December 21 is a little less cut and dry.  In the Mayan Long Count calendar, a 5125-year period known as the “Great Cycle” ends December 21, 2012.  By Mayan reckoning, this is the fourth of such cycle, with the previous three cycles culminating in the destruction and subsequent recreation of the universe.

Without delving into theoretical physics, we can set a lower limit for the age of the universe with the assumption that the universe must be at least as old as the oldest thing in it.  Through radiometric dating, we can conclude that Earth formed approximately 4.54 billion years ago.  At the very least, the juxtaposition of ancient mythology and modern subatomic technology should begin to damage the credibility of these theories.


The first theory of the apocalypse we’ll examine is the Niburu Theory.  Nibiru, known colloquially as Planet X, will have a close encounter with Earth.  Nibiru is approximately four times the size of Earth with a 3600-year orbital period, and it may either collide with Earth or alter Earth’s rotation in a near-miss.  In the case of a near-miss, Earth will rotate 180o on its axis, physically flipping its North and South poles. Earth will cease its usual rotation for nearly a week, at which time it will resume rotation as usual.

Considering the sheer volume of astronomers throughout human history, it is impossible that a local planet could remain undetected for thousands of years.  A planet as massive as the putative Nibiru would certainly be visible with the naked eye, particularly if its orbital trajectory permits a near-miss terrestrial encounter.  However, even if Nibiru managed to evade prying eyes, it would still impact the orbits of planets.

In 1846, the discovery of Neptune was pre-empted by the 1821 miscalculation of the orbit of Uranus.  A comparison between the empirical and observed orbits necessitated the existence of an eighth planet.  Upon its discovery, Neptune’s location had already been calculated to within one degree.

Mike Brown is a professor of planetary astronomy at the California Institute of Technology.  “It is not impossible that the Sun has a brown dwarf companion,” he said in reference to Nibiru during a 2009 interview with Discovery.  “But to be hidden from us it would have to be much, much further out than the Kuiper Belt… there are very good limits to what you can hide at what distances in the solar system.”  A Mars-sized object would have to be at least ten times further than Neptune to avoid perturbing solar orbits.  However, such an oblong orbit would not persist.  “It would only last for about a million years before it came too close to Jupiter and got ejected out of the solar system,” Brown said.

If Nibiru has somehow done the impossible and remained undetected, there can be no doubt that a collision with Earth would be absolutely devastating.  However, the predicted outcome of a near-miss completely defies physics.  In a 1977 rebuttal of the same claim, renowned astrophysicist Carl Sagan asserted that halting Earth’s rotation would require so much energy that the oceans would begin to boil.  Furthermore, Sagan questioned how rotation would later resume without the application of an external torque, an argument we can extend to the pole shift supposedly triggered by the arrival of Nibiru.

There is literally zero scientific evidence in support of the Nibiru/Planet X apocalyptic theory.


Moving on, the galactic alignment theory posits that on December 21, 2012, Earth will align with the Sun and Sagittarius-A*, the supermassive black hole at the centre of the Milky Way.  The combined gravitational effects of the Sun and Sagittarius-A* (pronounced Sagittarius-A-star) are anticipated to wreak havoc upon Earth somehow.

The galactic alignment theory likely finds its roots in the interaction of solar and lunar gravity effects on Earth.  Shortly after a full or new moon, the Sun and Moon align, resulting in higher than normal tides known as spring tides.  Conversely, following the first and last quarter, the Sun and the Moon are at 90o angles when observed from Earth, resulting in lower tides known as neap tides.  It therefore seems logical to extend this theory to the Sun and a black hole approximately 4 million times more massive than the Sun.

However, Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation dictates that gravity is proportional to mass and inversely proportional to the square of the radius between two objects.  Sagittarius-A* is approximately 30,000 light-years away from Earth, whereas light covers the distance between Earth and its moon in 1.2 seconds flat.  At that distance, Sagittarius-A* would need to be 1000 times more massive than it is to have the same gravitational impact as the Moon.

Fortunately for those of us who enjoy not having our civilizations annihilated, on December 21, 2012, the Moon will be just past its first quarter.  It will have 1000 times more gravitational force on Earth than Sagittarius-A*, and it will be at an almost 90o angle to the aligned stellar bodies.  Furthermore, this galactic alignment actually already occurred in 1998, with absolutely no effects, as expected.


The final highly-touted theory of the apocalypse relates to a combination of Earth’s magnetic field reversing and the Sun’s activity strengthening.  The magnetosphere protects Earth’s surface from cosmic radiation, and if it were ever to reverse, it would be weakened. It is in this weakened state that a particularly strong solar storm is expected to penetrate the metaphorical shield and fry all life on Earth.  Just to remain faithful to the Mayans, this storm will happen on December 21, 2012.

Geomagnetic reversal is not historically unprecedented.  In fact, they occur randomly throughout Earth’s history due to the stochastic nature of Earth’s magnetic fields, which constantly wax and wane in strength.  However, the degradation of the global dipole followed by a complete reversal may take on the order of thousands of years, as opposed to the single catastrophic event required for the classic apocalyptic cataclysm.

Conversely, solar maxima occur cyclically every 11 years, although the precise period fluctuates between 9-14 years.  This entails an elevated number of sunspots and an increase in the frequency of coronal mass ejections (CMEs) to 3-5 daily, up from once every few days at solar minima.  A CME releases large quantities of matter and electromagnetic radiation into space, although not necessarily out into the planetary system.

Upon reaching Earth, the magnetic field associated with the CME interacts with Earth’s magnetosphere, compressing it on the day side and expanding it on the night side, while potentially injecting large amounts of energy.  Particularly severe compression is called a geomagnetic storm.  Excitation of atmospheric oxygen and nitrogen may follow, resulting in photon emission that drives the phenomenon known as aurora, typically only observed near Earth’s poles.

The largest recorded geomagnetic storm occurred the night of August 28, 1859, and produced an aurora visible as far south as Panama, and was bright enough that Americans thought their cities were burning.  Observations of storm magnitude may be made via analysis of nitrate-rich ice cores based on high-energy proton radiation.  According to Sten Odenwald, a specialist in space weather phenomenology, a storm of such magnitude today would cost upwards of $70 billion to satellites alone.

Fortunately for consumers, the impact of the satellite damage would be mitigated by prolonged widespread power outages because electrical transformers all over the world would literally fry after geomagnetic-induced current spikes their temperatures over 200oC and vaporize their coolant.  Odenwald predicts a full recovery from such a storm could take weeks, or possibly months.

Think about that.  In today’s tech-reliant world, mass chaos would inevitably ensue as people suddenly lose all means of communication. It may not be the horrible, fiery death promised by apocalyptic believers, but it sure would feel like the end of
the world. •


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