|Some believe the end of the Mayan calendar, Dec. 21, 2012, will usher in a new spiritual era or even a doomsday. And new research suggests the civilization’s demise long ago may have been partly their own doing.
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A year from today the world will come to an end, according to some who cite the end of the Mayan Long Count calendar as evidence of a Dec. 21, 2012, apocalypse. But both astronomers and experts on Mesoamerican history say the Mayan apocalypse is likely to be another in a long line of failed doomsdays.
According to the Maya Long Count calendar, the winter solstice of 2012 — Dec. 21, 2012 —is the end of a b’ak’tun, a 144,000-day cycle that has repeated 12 times since the mythical Maya creation date. The b’ak’tun that will end in 2012 is the 13th, supposedly a full 5,200-year cycle of creation.
Because of this end date, a number of predictions have attached themselves to Dec. 21, from the end of the world via collision with a rogue planet, to the ushering in of a new world era. But neither historians nor astronomers put much credence in these predictions. [End of the World? Top Doomsday Fears]
Deciphering the Mayan calendar
In fact, according to archaeologists, it wasn’t the Mayans who linked the end of the 13th b’ak’tun with the end of the world. According to Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History, when Judeo-Christians began to decipher Mayan writings, their preconceived notions of apocalypse and the end of the world led them to link Mayan calendar cycles with doomsday.
“A lot of the end-of-the-world mythologies are the result of Christian eschatology introduced by Franciscan missionaries,” John Hoopes, a scholar of Maya history at the University of Kansas, told Livescience, referring to missionaries just entering the New World andcoming into contact with native people.
Maya scholars disagree on exactly how the Maya people would have interpreted the end of their calendar cycle, Hoopes said, though many say they would have seen it as a new beginning.
Many of the supposed 2012 doomsday scenarios involve astronomical phenomena: A rogue planet, solar storms or a planetary alignment. But NASA scientists say these aren’t real threats.
One theory holds that a rogue body called “Planet X” or “Nibiru” will collide with Earth in 2012, snuffing out our planet. The only problem with this theory? Nibiru is made up.
“There’s no evidence whatsoever that Nibiru exists,” said Don Yeomans, manager of NASA’s Near-Earth Object program office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., at a public talk Dec. 8. Yeomans said theories that Nibiru is lurking behind our sun make no sense.
“We would have seen it years ago,” he said.
Likewise, Yeomans said, there are no planetary alignments or other astronomical anomalies set for Dec. 21, 2012.
Our stormy sun
One doomsday theory based on perhaps a pinch of science involves the sun. After years of relative peace, the electromagnetic activity on the surface of the sun is heating up, according to NASA. Some fear that an enormous solar flare will engulf Earth or otherwise destroy us.
But this ramping up of activity is typical of our home star, explained Daniel Baker, the director of the laboratory for atmospheric and space physics at the University of Colorado, Boulder, in a talk at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union this month. [Gallery: Our Amazing Sun]
“The sun undergoes an approximately 11-year period of activity,” Baker said. “It goes from very weak conditions, the solar minimum, to some very large solar maximum numbers.”
The sun has been quiet even by solar minimum standards in recent years, Baker said. The upcoming maximum — set to peak in 2013, not 2012 — is expected to be average. Humans do have to watch out for solar storms, which can disrupt satellite communications and electrical grids here on Earth. Nonetheless, industries can prepare for solar storms, which is why agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have centers whose sole job is to predict these storms’ coming.
Different industries adjust in different ways, said Rodney Viereck of the NOAA Space Environment Center. Airlines that rely on satellite communications will fly at latitudes where alternative forms of communication are possible. Industries dependent on Global Positioning System (GPS) technology will delay crucial activities. Power grids will adjust voltages to handle electromagnetic fluctuations.
2012: Just another year
Finally, theories abound online about one more scientific phenomenon and the 2012 apocalypse: a magnetic pole reversal on Earth. Believers worry that a flip-flop of the Earth’s magnetic field will throw civilization back into the Stone Age, or perhaps destroy all life on the planet, by temporarily dropping the magnetic-field barrier to radiation from space. NASA scientists, however, say Earthlings can rest easy.
According to NASA, the planet’s magnetic field reverses every 200,000 to 300,000 years, though we’ve currently gone more than twice that without a swap.
But these flips don’t happen in an instant, according to the space agency. They occur over hundreds of thousands of years. The last reversal happened 780,000 years ago, according to NASA, and the fossil record shows no sign of any disruption in life.
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Many people have proposed wild ways to solve the myriad problems facing Earth, including water pollution, smog, mounds of trash and global warming. Ideas range from the rational (if not always easily implemented) to the downright zany. We’ve compiled a list of some of the wackier (or at least wackier-sounding) proposed solutions to today’s environmental challenges.
When you’re lounging on the beach on a sunny day with the sun’s hot rays beating down on you, you may try to keep out the glare with a pair of sunglasses or a hat. Some scientists have proposed taking a similar strategy with our warming planet: putting a ring of sunlight-scattering particles or micro-spacecraft in orbit around the equator. The idea is that the ring would reduce the amount of solar radiation hitting the planet and counteract some of the warming induced by greenhouse gases. The wild idea would also be an expensive one, with a potential price tag in the trillions of dollars.
Here’s the basic idea: Tiny photosynthesizing plankton in the ocean use carbon dioxide from the air to make food. When they die, they sink down to the ocean floor, taking the carbon with them. Because iron stimulates phytoplankton growth, some people have suggesting fertilizing parts of the ocean with iron to create huge plankton blooms to suck up some of the excess carbon dioxide we’ve emitted into the atmosphere. Several private companies have attempted ventures to dump iron into the ocean to sell carbon credits, but many scientists question just how effective the massive blooms are at trapping and storing carbon. Environmental groups have also warned that iron dumps may harm the local marine ecosystems.
Environmentalist and futurologist James Lovelock, creator of the Gaia hypothesis, recently added a scheme of his own to the somewhat zany list of proposed global warming remedies. Lovelock’s idea is to use pipes to stimulate mixing in the world’s oceans, bringing deep, nutrient-rich waters to the surface to feed huge algae blooms that would suck up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and sink it to the bottom of the ocean as they died. This method would only be a Band-Aid though, Lovelock says, because warming will continue for some time, even if we stop emitting greenhouse gases today.
Certain types of aerosols, or tiny particles suspended in the air, are thought to have an overall cooling effect on the atmosphere. These particles intercept some solar radiation and scatter it back into space. The cooling effect on the Earth’s climate can be seen after a volcanic eruption, which can spew millions of tons of sulfur into the atmosphere. Some scientists have suggested that we mimic nature and inject a bunch of sulfur into the atmosphere to counteract global warming. One problem with this plan is the increased amount of acid rain this would generate. Another is that sulfur would have to be regularly injected into the atmosphere to keep up the cooling, or global warming would pick up right where it left off.
They’re not just pets (or food for them) – worms can be made useful by putting them to work eating those bits of sandwich crust and apple cores from the garbage and turning them into compost. The compost can then be used in gardens and to plant houseplants. Los Angeles city employees have been keeping a plastic bin of the little wriggling creatures in their office to recycle their lunch leftovers. If you’re not wild about keeping a worm farm in your kitchen, you could always compost the old-fashioned way with a bin in the backyard.
If more Americans walked and avoided red meat, we could reduce carbon dioxide emissions and attack the country’s obesity epidemic, some researchers have said. One scientist has calculated that if all Americans between the ages of 10 and 74 walked for half an hour a day in lieu of driving, it would cut annual U.S. carbon dioxide emissions by 64 million tons (and shed some pounds from American bellies). A more vegetarian diet could also reduce emissions. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has reported that the meat industry is responsible for 18 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, through fertilizer use, animal manure and the energy required to transport food and meat.
Since we have all this extra carbon dioxide building up in the atmosphere and warming the Earth, some scientists have proposed taking that excess gas and trapping it somewhere, perhaps underground in aquifers, coal seams or depleted oil and gas fields. (The method is already used to push up dregs from the latter.) To do this, carbon dioxide would have to be separated from plant emissions, compressed and injected into an underground tomb, where it could be kept for thousands of years. There are still questions of the costs involved in siphoning off carbon dioxide from plant gas streams though, and some environmental groups worry about the gas seeping out of the ground.
No, this doesn’t mean you should stop putting your garbage out every week and start living in an ocean of food wrappers and tissues. Rather, an engineer at the University of Leeds in England has created a construction material out of waste (for example, recycled glass, sewage sludge, and incinerator ash). These “Bitublocks” keep litter out of the landfill and could be used to build houses. They also take less energy to make than concrete blocks, their inventor says. Other scientists have proposed using waste material from poultry farms, such as chicken feathers, to make more environmentally-friendly plastics.
Cutting global greenhouse gas emissions by mandatory caps or a cap-and-trade system may not be scientifically zany, but it’s been a political hot potato. Proposals to revamp pollution-emitting power stations, limit the amount of carbon dioxide that businesses, industries or countries can emit, or putting a tax on greenhouse gas emissions would bring emission levels down worldwide, and many countries have signed on to make the (voluntary) cuts called for in the Kyoto Protocol. But the United States in particular has objected to mandatory emissions cuts on the grounds that they will damage the economy, though some states, particularly California, have pushed for regulations on carbon dioxide.
It may sound like a rash decision, but San Francisco, China and Australia have all jumped on board. China wants to rid the country of “white pollution” — the plastic bags that clog city streets and waterways. And Australia hopes to cut its greenhouse gas emissions and reduce household energy bills by phasing out sales of incandescent bulbs. Such measures have gained momentum within the last year with more governments considering taking measures against the wasteful bags and inefficient bulbs. But before you worry about how you’ll carry your groceries or light your home, these measures promote alternatives: recyclable paper bags and reusable cloth ones and more efficient (and cost-saving) compact fluorescent bulbs.
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