The World Probably Isn't Ending

Foreign Policy responds to the worried citizenry who cite recent earthquakes and volcanic eruptions as evidence of an impending apocalypse. Earthquakes actually haven’t become more frequent, although they have become more deadly, most likely due to urban expansion: “China’s Qinghai province has experienced 53 magnitude 5.0 or higher quakes since 2001, but it wasn’t until one struck near the population center in Yushu that the casualty numbers exploded.” According to the U.S. Geological Survey,?16 major earthquakes have occurred on average each year since 1900; so the six major earthquakes of 2010 are not unusual. Reported volcanic activity has increased, however the Global Volcanism Project hypothesizes that the observed increase in volcanic activity is actually due to “an increased reporting of eruptions.”[%comments]

John Howard

I have a question not directly related to this column on volcanic activity, but under the category of natural disasters and our perceptions of them.

We always see headlines attributing death totals to blizzards and hurricanes. Recognizing that there are certainly deaths directly caused by these disasters, I've always wondered whether the impact of an accurately predicted and well publicized storm is not, in fact, to reduce overall death totals. My logic (or lack tell me) is that a large percentage of people choose not to travel during the storm period. Given the frequency of travel deaths, primarily automobile accidents, isn't it likely that the
highly publicized storm deaths are more than offset by the "normal" rate of automobile deaths that are avoided because of the lack of travel? Has anyone already done an analysis like this?


If you really want to stoke your paranoia subscribe to the USGS 5.0 and greater Twitter feed.

Harry Braun

The New York Times ran an article about the American Petroleum Institute in April of 1998. It outlines a very specific and detailed plan by oil and gas industry representatives to invest millions of dollars in an effort to undermine support for the Kyoto Protocol and discredit the scientific consensus opinion that greenhouse gases are causing the planet to warm.

The draft plan, titled "Global Climate Science Communications Action Plan," concedes that opposition to the protocol is not shared by the public or a vast majority of scientists worldwide. "There has been little, if any, public resistance or pressure applied to Congress to reject the treaty, except by those 'inside the Beltway' with vested interests," it notes.

Read: Global Climate Science Communications Action Plan


Wonks Anonymous

One explanation of the Icelandic eruptions posits that the melting of glaciers in Iceland caused by global warming has led to a lowering of pressure on the magma chambers and an increase in volcanic activity.

Can we really suppose that the relatively quick removal of the equivalent of layers geological deposits will have no consequences?

For geological purposes melting ice is the same as eroding fock.


Isn't the end of the world the type of thing econometric methods would have trouble predicting? There can't be a whole lot of data on previous ends of this world or others.


I agree. I've been wondering for years now whether things are really so much more worse now in terms of crime and child/youth issues and environmental problems than before, or if it's merely the fact that more people are simply much more aware more of the time which creates a perception of mayhem? Were the "golden years" or eras or whatever that much better? Or was it simply that "ignorance was bliss"?! But I do feel it's better to be informed and aware and uninformed and naive. It also makes perfect sense that there are much more people creating more urbanization and increasing strain on resources. There are feedback mechanisms in nature that we have yet to understand that, when pricked, will fire back on us. Population control should be more of a priority than fretting about climate change.


"Earthquakes actually haven't become more frequent..."

Only because the number of scantily clad women is remaining constant.

Eric M. Jones

The World IS ending and — we are all going to die. Just not right now.

Eileen M. Wyatt

@Sam -- My money's on a combination of greater data flow and lack of context. For instance, environmental problems in the United States were much worse half a century ago. The Clean Water Act was passed in 1972 after the Cuyahoga River caught on fire, it was that polluted. That sort of thing doesn't happen any more. Similarly, the nastiest of the pesticides discussed in Silent Spring are no longer in use here. Urban smog lingers in some regions, but it's not nearly the problem it once was, despite increased driving. Leaded gasoline no longer spews its byproducts into the environment.

The global warming debate looks dire, but it's a lot less immediately and personally scary than having undrinkable water, unbreathable air, or houses built on toxic waste (Love Canal, anyone?).


Its almost certainly better reporting and increased awareness in this internet age. But it is fun to have something to worry about though ! Makes for good press, and if you can make money off of it - even better!



People are always claiming the end of the world is around the corner, they've been saying this for (hundreds of?) thousands of years. It can be hard to imagine that life will go on when we die, but it will.
Two hundred years ago people were not so aware of what happened in foreign cities and countries; it would take weeks for news to travel, if it did. Add to this people living in highrises, with thousands living within a city block, an earthquake would have a much larger visual impact today than when most people lived in rural areas.


I do not agree that the earthquakes aren't more frequent today. I subscribe to the USGS email feed. And I can attest that the recent earthquake and follow-up tremors has been happening NON-STOP for the past 2-3 weeks in Baja California/Mexico. I just can't fathom how these people can tolerate huge earth tremors almost 2-3 times a day for this long! I believe that USGS's soft-peddling of the issue is just anti-panic-control. I've been seeing increasing earthquakes in areas where they are NOT at all common like the central, south east, and northeast USA. I mean southern New Jersey??? Come on!

Also I wonder how accurate former US Defense Secretary William Cohen (R) was in his speech University of Georgia in April 1997 ( when he referred to a alternative probable causes of volcano eruptions and earthquakes. The biblical predictions by Jesus at Mark 13:5-8 did not have to mean from NATURE you know. When he mentioned "wars" and "famines" they have all proven to be man-made today not God-made. So by extension SecDef Cohen (R) may have been right!



@ThoseThatThinkEndof WorldMeansEndofPlanet - Just to set your notion to a more "accurate knowledge"... When Jesus and his apostles referred to the "end of the world" they were not referring to the PLANET itself. They were referring to a "system of things".

See Matthew 24:3, 7-12 - "While he was sitting upon the Mount of Olives, the disciples approached him privately, saying: "Tell us, When will these things be, and what will be the sign of your presence and of the conclusion of the system of things?"

So its easy to ridicule people of faith but what if you were wrong and there actually was a metaphysical divine being who did actually leave a guidebook for us to use and that book said that the planet will be wiped clean of all wicked elements (i.e. people) one day leaving just the worthy faithful ones to Him to inherit and prosper? Well He did and it does say that... Except volcanoes and earthquakes will be the LEAST of your concerns then...



It's always almost The End Of The World.


I do find it quite interesting that such a large portion of civilized society is so enthralled with the idea... I just can't put myself in a state of mind such as that held by those who are so fearful.