Here’s a good way to start the day: The Future of Humanity Institute estimates a nearly one-in-five chance of human extinction by 2100. Some possible causes are far off in the future, or at least a little bit around the bend. Others? Well, they could happen at literally any second. We’re not talking “collapse of civilization” scenarios here, either. We’re talking “every human being and maybe even the earth or the known universe is destroyed” types of events. Chew on these while you enjoy your morning coffee… Photo: Getty/vicnt
1. Grey Goo: Grey goo is the technical, scientific name for a nanotechnology disaster. Here’s the basic idea: Nanotechnology refers to very small machines, some built on atomic scale. They’re not a thing of science fiction, they’re already here. But if one goes haywire and starts self-replicating out of control, guess what? They could eat the entire planet, turning the earth to dust within days. Sound crazy? It’s actually the most likely of our scenarios, at a 5 percent possibility by 2100.
2. Black Holes: Black holes are cool, right? They make great plot devices in science fiction films and have us rethinking everything we think we know about physics. But here’s the thing: They move. And there’s no reason one couldn’t move through our solar system, or even nearby, sucking everything inside… into… nothingness.
3. Mercury Rising? There’s a non-trivial (1 percent) chance that Mercury’s orbit could be made unstable by Jupiter sometime during the life of the sun. If that happens, there are four possible outcomes, one of which is that it bangs into the Earth. The others—colliding with Venus, falling into the Sun or getting thrown out of the solar system entirely—aren’t any rosier for any earthlings who happen to be around. The meteor that killed the dinosaurs was 15 kilometers wide. Mercury is 4879 kilometers wide.
4. Hypernova: A star’s lifespan ends in a massive explosion. When a star explodes, it kicks massive amounts of radiation all around—hundreds of light years all around. That’s what might show up in your backyard without warning and without any possible solution. Sometimes those explosions are even more massive than normal. That’s called a hypernova, and you won’t be anywhere near the explosion, but you might be near the fallout..
5. False Vacuum Decay: Some theorize that our universe resides within a false vacuum. If another vacuum formed within our universe with a lower energy state than the false vacuum we reside in, it would destroy everything in the universe at slightly less than the speed of light.
6. Polar Shift: Polar shift is a common trope in doomsday literature for good reason: There’s no real reason why the poles of the earth are aligned the way they are. They’ve changed in the past and will probably change again. That could potentially flood the earth with cosmic radiation as the earth’s magnetic field fails to shield us.
7. Super Volcanos: If a big enough volcano had a big enough eruption, it could kick up enough volcanic ash to change the earth’s environment completely. That might mean either a volcanic winter and resulting ice age or a global greenhouse warming. For context, a smallish supervolcano in Indonesia in 1815 (which became known as the Year Without a Summer or, if you’re more of a kidder, Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death) caused starvation in Europe by lowering temperatures.
8. Artificial Intelligence: Yeah, we’re talking about some SkyNet-type event here, which, like grey goo, has a 5 percent chance of happening between now and 2100. Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates and Elon Musk are all afraid of this possibility. Either the machines do something stupid or else they become smart enough to know they should get rid of us. Either way, we’re toast.
9. Alien Invasion: Humans are always sending out messages into space trying to get aliens’ attention. Musk and Hawking are among those who suggest that might not be the best idea. Maybe humans are singularly destructive and warlike, or maybe we’re childlike and innocent compared to whatever is lurking out there. Or maybe the aliens take one look at us and decide the universe is better off sans shaved apes with nukes. We won’t really know until they’re on our doorstep.
10. Asteroid: Hollywood loves the asteroid catastrophe and with good reason: It could happen at any second and there’s not much Bruce Willis or the rest of humanity could do to stop it. The problem for you and everyone else living on Earth isn’t one particular asteroid and its path, however. It’s that there are so many of these asteroids bouncing around that no one knows when one might strike.