Apocalypse 2012 (Book Review)

The Apocalypse just ain't what it used to be. With the millions of fundamentalist believers expecting the imminent arrival of the Last Judgment matched on the secular side by prophets of ecological desolation, it would seem "The End is Nigh" sandwich-board guys are firmly in the mainstream. Still, it comes as a bit of a shock to find so many in the Armageddon community fixed on a definite - and very near - date: Dec. 21, 2012. And even more of a jolt to learn how much actual science lies behind the doomsday predictions.

Admittedly, the precise date is more mystical than scientific, being primarily based on the day the millennia-old Mayan Long Count calendar runs out. Since the Mayans were without a doubt the world's greatest astronomers, the mere fact that they called a halt at a set date is enough for many doomsayers - psychics, self-appointed saviours, alien visitor aficionados and the like. Books and websites are mushrooming, and survivalists are heading for the hills - literally: South Africa's Drakensberg Mountains, safe from volcanos and tsunamis, are a favoured refuge.

But Lawrence Joseph, whose survey of end-time scenarios, Apocalypse 2012 (Random House), manages to be both lighthearted in tone and more than a little disturbing in content, keeps his focus on the science. (Besides, he adds in an interview, it's difficult to get ahold of Noah's heirs: most of them are "very nice, but they're all pressed for time.") So Joseph goes to South Africa, not to scope out real estate in the Drakensbergs, but to talk to geophysicists about the earth's weakening magnetic field. Nobody knows why it's thinning, or whether that presages a pole shift. The dwindling field, which already has cracks in it the size of California, is bad enough, since it's our primary line of defence against lethal solar radiation; a pole shift, which last occurred about 780,000 years ago, would be catastrophic while it took place, reducing radiation protection to near zero, and initiating seismic and volcanic eruptions.

If that doesn't do it for us, there's always the Yellowstone super-volcano that devastates North America every 600,000 to 700,000 years. It last went off some 640,000 years ago, spewing enough ash to fill the Great Lakes twice, enough to block sunlight around the world for 10 years. Nor is a ticking clock the only reason to look askance at the Tokyo-sized lake of fire under America's most famous park: it's risen 750 cm since 1922, a lightning change in geological terms. But maybe Yellowstone is too small to worry about. The 542-million-year fossil record shows that every 62 to 65 million years, the planet undergoes a mass extinction episode that routinely wipes out between 50 and 90 per cent of all genera. It's no surprise to learn the last mass extinction, the one that killed the dinosaurs, was 65 million years ago. We're overdue.

All this still doesn't - yet - add up to a good reason to stop contributing to your RRSP. On the time scale of our 4.5-billion-year-old planet, those disasters may well be due, but in a human lifespan, or even that of our children's children, there's ample wriggle room. Even a pole shift - if one is underway at all - would play out over a millennium. Unfortunately, the same can't be said about the recent strange behaviour of our hitherto friendly neighbourhood star.

On Jan. 20, 2005, a solar storm the size of Jupiter shot out a massive flare that carried several billion tons of protons to earth in a half-hour. This was seriously perturbing for two reasons. First was the speed the protons travelled at - about a quarter of the speed of light, 50 times their usual pace. The closer to lightspeed any object approaches, the more mass it achieves: "unless Einstein is seriously wrong," Joseph writes, "we all will be obliterated if a future batch of protons manages to shave another 22 minutes off their travel time." Second, and more important, the solar storms of 2005 - there were many more, including 10 between Sept. 7 and 13, one of the most turbulent weeks in recorded solar history - shouldn't have happened at all. The year 2005 was very near solar minimum, the quiet part of the 11- to 13-year sunspot cycle. The next solar maximum, when storms are most frequent and powerful, will climax in 2012. Given the peculiar way the sun acted at minimum, a lot of people are worried about what it will do at maximum.

That includes Joseph, 52, a skeptical science writer who, in his own words, "had a lot of mean-spirited fun with the Y2K freaks." And now? "Personally and emotionally," he says, "I can't grasp the mega-disaster scenario. I have two small children - I mean I literally can't face it. But greater minds than mine see it coming." Have a nice day.

Maclean's February 26, 2007