Just in case you were feeling mildly optimistic when the world did not end in December, as some Mayan predictions were interpreted, there’s a new show detailing plenty of other ways this planet can be annihilated.
Not content to document what happens when nature goes on a rampage, The Weather Channel premieres “Forecasting the End” Thursday, March 21. The show contains just enough science to make it plausible. But when you analyze the events, well, they are not terribly likely.
“All of these shows play with a what-if scenario,” Ben McGee, a geoscientist on the show, tells Zap2it. “They are statistically possible. In my mind, the fun part of the exercise is playing the scenario forward and playing with the education hook. A low probability, high impact, which is what you need to get people’s attention.”
The first episode, though, is timely, considering the recent destruction caused by a meteorite in Russia. The six-episode series launches with a show about rogue planets.
These planets careen through space, not fixed to any solar system. Advances in technology enabled scientists to discover the existence of some 200 billion of them.
If one were to collide with Earth, it would be catastrophic. But even if there were not a direct hit, just entering Earth’s orbit and altering it a little could have dismal results including much harsher winters and hotter summers.
“Scientists always thought the system for forming planets is violent,” McGee says. “It is more violent than we thought. It looks like planets get knocked out, and one takes it for the team.”
Earth likely encountered a rogue planet millions of years ago, but that’s not definitive. However in the past year, “scientists captured what may have been the first direct image of a rogue planet,” McGee says. “On infrared. That, together (with the Russian meteorite), maybe now is an opportunity to make people aware of the idea of planets forming, and there can be consequences.”
McGee suggests this would resemble “a giant billiards game out there. I want to stress that space is really big. It is a lot like two guys separated by 50 yards, and they fire guns up into the sky. And you might have a rare instance where a couple of these meet. There is still hundreds of thousands more times of empty space.”
McGee, who began his studies in astrophysics, earned a degree in geology and works as a radiological engineer, serves as a consultant on this series.
“I am a space geek at heart,” he says.
The additional five scenarios that could bring about the end of the world are a supervolcano, megatsunami, asteroid impact, gamma-ray burst (when a nearby star has a super solar flare) and methane eruption.
Though none are statistically likely, all are possible, and therein lies the attraction of forecasting the end.
“To those of us who study it, it’s like Earth is wandering in the Amazon, and there are predators everywhere,” McGee says.
Asked to handicap the probability of which of these disasters was most likely, McGee ranks them.
“Least likely are things we have not seen evidence of before, like the rogue planet,” he says.
The next least likely would be a methane eruption, which would require a chemical process.
“Supervolcano eruptions have happened before; I don’t know that any of these are likely that they fall into the likely side of the scale,” he says.
A gamma-ray burst, when a nearby star releases a giant burst of radiation, happens at the speed of light. They’re so bright, McGee says, that scientists can spot them millions of light-years away.
“There is some archaeological evidence that this may have contributed to dramatic weather shifts,” he says. “It is not a smoking gun. We got smacked by one before. That one is fairly likely.”
Yet the most likely to spell out the end of the world would be a megatsunami.
Regardless of whether Earth is done in by a gigantic rock hurtling through space or an underground explosion, end-of-the-world scenarios are plentiful and seem to be getting more attention.
Still, it’s not necessarily a new obsession, McGee notes.
“The Book of Revelation has been a big hit for thousands of years” he says. “But I do think there is a fascination with very high-impact or visibility events.”
“It is today’s version of the fantastic. We have much more of a suspension of the prevalence of disbelief,” McGee says. “So there is less out there to realistically capture the imagination. We all love our fantasy [such as] ‘Star Wars,’ and it is fun. But what is left that you could actually believe in that is also fantastic?”
History, geology and astronomy have debunked long-held myths of how the world would end.
“We are replacing them with geological and the cosmic stories the universe is starting to tell us,” he says.