Apocalypses We Somehow Survived
Let's explore some apocalyptical situations humanity somehow survived.History
It’s pretty scary to think that, at any given moment, humanity is only an asteroid impact or nuclear launch away from total annihilation. But despite the universe’s best attempts to snuff us, humanity has managed to emerge from the rubble a surprising number of times. Let's explore 8 apocalypses humanity somehow survived.
Errors Of Annihilation
In the aftermath of World War 2, while most of the world was still burning, the USA and Russia emerged as the two dominant global superpowers. As the two nations began helping to rebuild the world, they spread their own economic and ideological systems wherever they went. As they did, their conflicting worldviews - the USA’s capitalism and the USSR’s communism - became more and more heated.
As both sides possessed enough nuclear weapons to effectively obliterate life on Earth, they carried out most of their fighting in proxy wars in places like Korea and Vietnam. But the possibility of nuclear annihilation loomed large throughout the mid-to-late-20th century.
While direct, USA-on-USSR war obviously didn’t happen, the ‘cold’ war very nearly went hot at 3 A.M on November 9, 1979. Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national security advisor to President Jimmy Carter, was informed that US defense systems had detected the launch of 2,200 ballistic missiles.
They were headed straight for the US. The ten minutes that followed were spent desperately verifying the claim and preparing a counter-attack. US bombers were put on standby, and missile command centers prepared for launch.
But with mere minutes to spare, the detected launches were found to be the result of faulty computer equipment, and the retaliatory strikes were called off.
These types of error-triggered close-calls were terrifyingly common throughout the cold war, with one of the scariest occurring in 1983. Weeks after Soviet forces shot down a commercial airliner carrying an American congressman, Russian satellites detected the launch of 5 American intercontinental ballistic missiles.
On the brink of nuclear annihilation, Earth’s fate fell to one man: Soviet Colonel Stanislav Petrov. Petrov determined that, in a real attack, America would use many more than 5 missiles, and managed to convince his superiors that it was a false alarm. He was proven right shortly after, and we live to tell the tale today.
Fire In The Sky
Solar flares, essentially massive eruptions on the surface of the sun, are mostly harmless to human beings in a biological sense. But, indirectly, the electromagnetic forces they bring with them are capable of bringing modern civilization to its knees.
In September 1859, the sun belched out an enormous ejection of plasma directly at Earth. When it hit, a few telegraph operators received electric shocks due to the flare’s powerful electromagnetic forces, and it caused mesmerizing auroras worldwide, but little damage was done.
But at more electricity-dependent points in recent history, the story is very different. For example, in 1967, weaker solar flares caused a malfunction in America’s missile-detection systems.
The ranking officials suspected that the Russians were jamming the system ahead of an attack and prepared to retaliate with force. Thankfully, scientists saved the day when they explained the actual cause.
However, both of those events pale in comparison to what very nearly happened in July 2012. A solar storm of similar magnitude to the one in 1859 occurred again. Had it occurred a week earlier, it would’ve hit Earth, with cataclysmic effects.
Electrical systems all over the globe would’ve been utterly fried by the electromagnetic forces. Most data storage devices would’ve been erased, while network connections and power grids would’ve shut down.
Emergency services would’ve been in total disarray. Hospital life-support machines would’ve shut down, emergency phone calls would’ve been impossible, heating systems would fail, and airplanes would lose all assisted navigation and electrical power. While the world did a hard reset, we’d be plunged into literal darkness and despair.
The Black Death
Taking a step back from humanity's near-miss scenarios, one of the most apocalyptic events that actually did happen began in 1347. Instances of people dying with horrible sores and wounds oozing pus began to spread like wildfire from China to the rest of the world.
With no knowledge of what the affliction was, or how it was caused, unfathomable masses of people were suddenly struck down, seemingly out of nowhere.
The Black Death, today understood to be the bacterium Yersinia Pestis, utterly ravaged Europe as it spread along trade lines. It killed an estimated 20 million people in Europe, which at the time constituted a third of the continent’s population. Can you imagine that loss? One in three of your family and friends, dying an agonizing death.
Half of Paris’ population died, and in the Middle East, the death rates were as high as 40%. Humanity was completely unprepared for the pestilence, and apothecaries tried hundreds of remedies, to no avail.
The Black Death spread easily due to the fleas that carried it on rodents, which were rife in a world with no real understanding of hygiene.
Plague doctors desperately tried to heal the sick with pouches of herbs, or by draining ‘bad blood’ using leeches. The priests of the time became convinced that the plague was a punishment from God and begged people to repent the sins that had caused it.
Some walked from town to town, whipping themselves as repentance, while others blamed marginalized groups like the Jews for the Plague, leading to even more senseless death.
None of it helped, and bodies continued to pile up in such numbers that they were left rotting in the streets, or barricaded in abandoned homes. Eventually, the instances of infection became fewer, and the societies it had brought to the brink of total collapse began to recover. But every now and then, the Black Death returns, bringing devastation with it.
In 1918, the Grim Reaper – clearly bored with Yersinia Pestis – got a new toy: Spanish Influenza. The specific strain of the virus, known as H1N1, spread rapidly throughout Europe, Asia, and the Americas.
From there, this devastating plague-infected around 500 million people worldwide; approximately one-third of the world’s population. An estimated 50 million died from it soon afterwards.
The deadly strain could infect even the healthiest of individuals and opened the body up to lethal secondary infections and afflictions like pneumonia. World War 1 was raging at the time, and the awful conditions in the trenches and cramped medical camps were hotbeds of the sickness.
It could be spread with a mere sneeze or cough, so the pandemic was unstoppable in those close-quarters environments.
These conditions, coupled with modern, speedy transport methods moving huge masses of soldiers, allowed it to spread, infect and mutate into ever more aggressive forms with unbelievable ferocity.
To put it into perspective, H1N1 killed more US soldiers than the war itself did. Scientists still can’t agree on what made the strain so lethal and resilient. To this day, we don’t have an effective vaccine to counter the virus if it reappears in a renewed and strengthened form.
World War 2
Between 1939 and 1945 the Second World War saw an estimated 85 million deaths. The majority of those deaths accounted for people directly killed in the war, and as many as 28 million of them were caused by war-related disease and famine. World War 1 had left Germany economically crippled, leading its people to flock to the extreme ideas of Adolf Hitler for salvation.
Germany’s new leader’s insane, pseudoscientific ideas about a German master race led to aggressive attempts to expand the nation. As a result, millions would die in battle all over the world, while further millions would be massacred under Hitler’s race-cleansing policies.
Eventually, in May 1945, Germany surrendered after Allied forces regained control of Europe from Germany and its allies by military force. The surrender of Japanese forces in the Pacific followed in August of that year, thanks to the completion of the atomic bombs which were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
But while the Allied powers were eventually able to achieve victory, the already-apocalyptic war could’ve been much worse. See, the Manhattan project that gave the US the war-ending atomic bomb was based on research that the Germans were conducting simultaneously.
Indeed, a number of those who significantly contributed to the project were themselves German refugees and prisoners. Before Germany was defeated, the race was so close that Hitler had already made plans for the nuclear bombing of Washington and London.
Had the Nazis completed its nuclear program before the US, the world may still have been under the Reich’s boots today. And if they’d both completed them at the same time, total nuclear annihilation could definitely have been on the cards.
The Tunguska Event
When we think of asteroid disasters, we tend to think of the fall of the dinosaurs. But colossal asteroids have breached our atmosphere terrifyingly recently, almost wiping out entire cities.
The Tunguska Event is the name given to the 500-ton asteroid that fell over Northern Siberia in 1908. It exploded in the atmosphere 3 miles above the ground, but the air blast still managed to level an unbelievable 770 square miles of trees in the wilderness below.
Eyewitnesses felt and saw the explosion from over 40 miles away. One witness even claimed he was thrown from his chair and felt the searing heat of the explosion while sitting on his front porch. Scientists recently estimated that when the asteroid collided with Earth’s air, it exploded with energy equivalent to more than 1,000 of the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima.
It’s terrifying to consider what would’ve happened if it’d landed in a major population centre. An explosion of that magnitude could’ve easily obliterated London or New York City. If the asteroid had entered the atmosphere a few hundred miles in any direction, the world may have changed forever.
If it hit Germany, there may never have been a First World War. Hitting a financial centre like London could’ve ushered in a whole new global economic system. But if multiple impacts took place, which could happen at any time… well, best not to think about that.
End Of Civilization
The period of history from 3300 BCE to 1200 BCE is often referred to as the Bronze Age. It was marked by extraordinary prosperity for the Mediterranean civilizations, spurred on by the use of tools made from the metal alloy the period is named after.
The Bronze Age saw the Ancient Egyptians build the Great Pyramids of Giza, while other cultures made major leaps in trade, technology, religion, and art. And yet, between 1200 and 1150 BCE, seemingly out of nowhere, the cultures enjoying these advancements suddenly began to collapse.
Archaeologists suggest that the world underwent a sudden succession of natural disasters including, earthquakes, drought and famine during this time. These disasters, coupled with invasions and destruction of cities by invaders, and possibly even rebellions from within, brought much of civilization to its knees.
Entire cities and trade routes were abandoned as the societies and governments deteriorated. The inhabitants of these cities dispersed into smaller village settlements, in a massive step backwards, and knowledge shared by the larger communities was lost for centuries.
New generations grew up using tools they had no idea how to recreate, or even what their intended functions were, as the know-how had been lost as cultures disintegrated.
Imagine a post-apocalyptic future, where people use iPads as chopping boards, ignorant of their original purpose. It was like that. It’s pretty scary to think, but we could be no more than a natural disaster away from a reality like our Bronze-Age ancestors faced.
Humanity’s Closest Call
70,000 years ago, the global human population suddenly shrunk from approximately 200,000 down to around 2,000 individuals. That’s less than the number of students at many high schools.
So, what caused this sudden, violent bottleneck in the human population? One theory suggests the eruption of the Toba supervolcano was responsible.
The supereruption occurred roughly 75,000 years ago, devastating the surrounding areas and blanketing the sky in ash. With the sun partially blocked out by the ash cloud, plants and other human food sources may have been killed off in considerable amounts, in turn starving out human populaces.
Other theories suggest the population bottleneck might’ve been caused by the outbreak of diseases, or even by humans spreading themselves too thin as they migrated out of Africa. As it stands, we’re not sure.
But considering how easily diseases could’ve spread, or wars could’ve taken hold among those final thousands, it’s extraordinary that humans defied the odds and survived the bottleneck.
The fact that we – now nearly 8 billion-strong – made it to the point of making internet articles about our near-demise is, honestly, a miracle.