The end of the world. A topic largely reserved for sci-fi movies (such as Deep Impact and Armageddon – both excellent films, by the way) and Biblical prophecy (especially the Book of Revelation).
However, the end of the world has almost happened numerous times in recent history, from the 1800s until the present – from close-call asteroid fly-bys to near-nuclear war to the near-release of an apocalyptic virus. These are humanity’s near-extinction events.
(Fun fact: the 1983 movie WarGames actually happened. Not by a student, but it actually happened. In the ’70s. Think on that – and the rest of these, for that matter – as you try to sleep tonight.)
In 1967, Cold War tensions were running high. Five years earlier, the Cuban Missile Crisis had kept the entire United States on edge for 13 days straight, and in 1965 troops were sent to Vietnam for the first time. Since 1957, one third of the US Air Force’s bomber fleet was on alert (pdf) at any given time, ready to fire up their engines and take off in 15 minutes or less. It was in this tense, paranoid atmosphere that one of the largest solar storms of the 20th century erupted and nearly triggered an unprovoked attack on Soviet Russia.
A new paper, published Tuesday (Aug. 9) in the journal Space Weather, details the effects of that solar storm and the confusion it caused among Air Force commanders.
When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, kicking off the space race, the US Air Force decided to expand its Air Weather Service. Instead of just forecasting terrestrial weather for the military, they also started attempting to predict solar and geophysical events that could affect space missions, like solar flares and disturbances in the Earth’s magnetic field caused by the sun. Soon, a system was developed that allowed the weather service to report its findings and concerns to commanders at the North American Air Defense, more commonly known as NORAD, which coordinated defense efforts between the US and Canada.
This system was critically important on May 23, 1967. On the surface of the sun, a storm erupted over a sun spot, producing a burst of white light on the sun’s surface that could be seen with the naked eye all the way down on Earth. X-rays and extreme ultraviolet light hit Earth’s ionosphere, an upper layer of the atmosphere, affecting how radio waves were transmitted. Bursts of radio waves were emitted and the aurora borealis, an electric storm in the upper atmosphere caused by solar winds, was seen as far south as New Mexico.
All those radio waves emitted by the solar storm reached Earth at midday in North America. Everywhere that sunlight touched, radio waves bombarded the planet, including key radar sensors in Alaska, Greenland, and England that were part of the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (pdf), a network strung together to act as a warning system, alerting of incoming missiles from Russia before they reached their targets.
To US military commanders, the radar readings looked suspiciously like someone was jamming their signals with strategic radio interference. And if the Russians were behind the radio interference, it would be an act of war, worthy of calling the Air Force fleet into action. With radio communication limited, calling back aircraft would have been nearly impossible.
Fortunately, reason and caution prevailed. The space weather forecasters were able to convince higher-ups that the sun was the source of the interference, preventing a maneuver Russia surely would have seen as a provocation.
This wasn’t the first time this had happened, actually. Back in the early days of radar during World War II, British radar operators noticed (paywall) strong radio interference all over England. But the culprit turned out to be solar radiation in that case, too: eventually, they figured out that the interference only happened during the day and always came from the direction of the sun.
1. Another U-2 Spy Plane Incident
On October 27, 1962, just as the Cuban Missile Crisis was reaching its boiling point, an American U-2 spy plane took off from Alaska en route to a routine reconnaissance mission near the North Pole. Pilot Charles Maultsby was supposed to use celestial navigation to find his way, but halfway through the trip his view of the night sky became hopelessly obscured by the glow of the aurora borealis, or “northern lights.” With no visual markers to guide him, Maultsby soon drifted far off course and inadvertently crossed the border into the Soviet Union.
Because the situation in Cuba still rested on a knife-edge, Maultsby’s accidental detour carried possibly catastrophic consequences. Worried the U-2 could be a nuclear bomber, the Soviets scrambled several MiG fighter jets and sent them on a course to destroy the intruding aircraft. The Air Force responded by dispatching two F-102 fighters armed with nuclear-tipped missiles to shepherd Maultsby back to Alaska. Any confrontation between the two groups of aircraft could have potentially ended in all-out war, but Maultsby managed to glide his U-2—which had long since run out of fuel—out of Soviet airspace before he could be intercepted. Having averted disaster on two fronts, President John F. Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev would find a peaceful resolution to the Cuban Missile Crisis the following day.
2. The B-59 Submarine Incident
That same day, a minor incident aboard a Soviet submarine might stand as the closest the world has ever come to nuclear war. On October 27, 1962, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the American destroyer USS Beale began dropping depth charges on the nuclear-armed Soviet submarine B-59, which was lurking near the U.S. blockade line around Cuba. The charges were non-lethal warning shots intended to force B-59 to the surface, but the submarine’s captain mistook them for live explosives. Convinced he was witnessing the opening salvo of World War III, the captain angrily ordered his men to arm the sub’s lone nuclear-tipped torpedo and prepare for attack.
The misunderstanding could have resulted in disaster if not for a contingency measure that required all three of the submarine’s senior officers to sign off on a nuclear launch. The Soviet captain was in favor, but Vasili Arkhipov, B-59’s second in command, refused to give his consent. After calming the captain down, Arkhipov coolly convinced his fellow officers to bring B-59 to the surface and request new orders from Moscow. The submarine eventually returned to Russia without incident, but it was over 40 years before a full account of Arkhipov’s life-saving decision finally came to light.
3. The 1979 NORAD Computer Glitch
By the late 1970s, both the United States and the Soviets relied on computer systems to detect possible nuclear attacks. But while the new technology was more sophisticated, it also came with a fresh set of risks in the form of false alarms and glitches. Perhaps the most famous of these errors occurred at Colorado’s North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD. On the morning of November 9, 1979, technicians at the site received an urgent alert that the Soviets had launched a barrage of missiles at North America. Convinced a nuclear attack was imminent, the U.S. air defense program scrambled 10 interceptor fighter planes, ordered the president’s “doomsday plane” to take off, and warned launch control to prepare its missiles for a retaliatory attack.
The panic soon subsided after NORAD consulted its satellite data and realized the nuclear warning was little more than a false alarm. Upon further inspection, they discovered that a technician had accidentally run a training program simulating a Soviet attack on the United States. The incident sent shock waves through the international community—Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev even wrote President Jimmy Carter a letter noting the “tremendous danger” caused by the error—but it was not the last time a computer issue led to a nuclear scare. Computer chip failures would later lead to three more false alarms at NORAD in the following year.
4. The 1983 Nuclear False Alarm
On September 26, 1983, Lt. Colonel Stanislav Petrov was in command at Serpukhov-15, a bunker where the Soviets monitored their satellite-based detection systems. Shortly after midnight, panic broke out when an alarm sounded signaling that the United States had fired five Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, or ICBMs, toward Russia. The warning was a false alarm—one of the satellites had misinterpreted the glint of sunlight off clouds near Montana as a missile launch—but to the Soviets, it appeared the United States had started a nuclear war.
Protocol demanded that Serpukhov-15 report any signs of a missile launch to the Soviet high command, but Petrov had a hunch the warning was an error. He knew the new satellite system was mistake-prone, and he also reasoned that any nuclear strike by the Americans would come in the form of hundreds of missiles, not just five. With only minutes to make a decision, Petrov chose to ignore the blaring warning alarms and reported the launch as a false alarm—a move that may have averted a nuclear holocaust. The incident remained classified until after the Cold War ended, but Petrov later received several humanitarian awards for his extraordinary actions, and was even honored by the United Nations.
5. The Able Archer 83 Exercise
Although it was not widely known at the time, declassified government documents have since revealed that a November 1983 NATO war game nearly saw the United States and the Soviet Union come to blows. The source of the misunderstanding was an exercise known as Able Archer 83, which was supposed to simulate how a conventional attack on Europe by the Soviet Union could eventually be met by a U.S. nuclear strike. Such simulations were not uncommon during the Cold War, but the Able Archer mission differed from the usual protocol in both its scope and realism. In preparation for the war game, the United States airlifted 19,000 troops to Europe, changed its alert status to DEFCON 1 and moved certain commands to alternate locations—all steps that typically would only be taken in times of war.
For the Soviets, these maneuvers perfectly matched their own predictions for how the Americans would set the table for a nuclear offensive. While they knew a war game was taking place, they were also wary that it could be a ruse to cover up preparations for a real world attack. Unbeknownst to the Americans, the Soviets had soon gone into high alert and readied their nuclear arsenal, with some units in East Germany and Poland even preparing their fighter jets for takeoff. They remained poised for a counterstrike until November 11, when the Able Archer exercise ended without incident. Only later did NATO and the United States realize that their realistic simulation of World War III had very nearly led to the real thing.
9 times the world was at the brink of nuclear war — and pulled back
Godzilla was birthed from the devastation in Japan after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. Here’s how a real fishing-boat disaster inspired the fictional monster.
During the Cold War, the policy of mutually assured destruction between the US and the Soviet Union – appropriately referred to as “MAD” – meant that if one nation used nuclear weapons on another, then an equal response would have been doled out as soon as possible.
Over the course of the Cold War, and several times after it, the citizens of the world were forced to hold their breath as the superpowers came close to nuclear war.
Here are nine times the world was at the brink of nuclear war – but pulled back:
October 5, 1960 – The moon is mistaken for missilesWikimedia commonsThule AN/FPS-50 detection reflectors
Early warning radar quickly became one of the most important tools in the nuclear age. American radar stations were built all around the world with the hope that they would detect incoming Soviet missiles, warning the homeland of a strike and allowing for the president to form a response.
On October 5, 1960, one such warning was issued from a newly constructed early warning radar station in Thule, Greenland (now called Qaanaaq). Dozens of missiles were reportedly detected, and at one point were said to reach the US in 20 minutes.
A panic ensued at the North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD) HQ in Colorado, and NORAD was placed on its highest alert level.
The panic was put to rest when it was realised that Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev was visiting New York at the time. A later investigation found that the radar had mistaken the moon rising over Norway as Soviet missiles.
November 24, 1961 – A single switch causes a mechanical failureWikimedia commonsArtist impression of the Thule site J BMEWS station’s detection arcs.
Just over a year later, Strategic Air Command (SAC) HQ in Omaha, Nebraska lost contact with the Thule radar station. SAC officials then tried to contact NORAD HQ in Colorado, but the line was reportedly dead.
It was determined before that the probability that both Thule and NORAD’s communications would shut down due to technical malfunction was very low, making SAC believe that an attack was underway.
SAC’s entire alert force was ordered to prepare for takeoff, but crisis was averted when a US bomber managed to make contact with Thule and confirm no attack was underway.
It was later discovered that a single malfunctioning switch managed to shut down all communications, even emergency hotlines, between SAC, Thule, and NORAD.
October 25, 1962 – A bear almost turns the Cuban Missile Crisis hotWikimedia commonsF-106A Delta Darts
The Cuban Missile Crisis is perhaps the closest the world has ever come to global nuclear war. Four instances over the 13-day event stand out in particular, the first one happening on October 25, 1962.
Tensions were already high during the crisis, and the US military was placed on DEFCON 3, two steps away from nuclear war.
Just after midnight on October 25, a guard at the Duluth Sector Direction Center in Minnesota saw a figure attempting to climb the fence around the facility. The guard, worried that the figure was a Soviet saboteur, shot at the figure and activated the sabotage alarm.
This triggered air raid alarms to go off at all air bases in the area. Pilots at Volk Field in neighbouring Wisconsin to panic, since they knew that no tests or practices would happen while the military was on DEFCON 3.
The pilots were ordered to their nuclear armed F-106A interceptors, and were taxiing down the runway when it was determined the alarm was false. They were stopped by a car that had raced to the airfield to tell the pilots to stop.
The intruder turned out to be a bear.
October 28, 1962 – Radar operators get confused over an unknown satellite
One day after those events, radar operators in Moorestown, New Jersey reported to NORAD HQ just before 9:00 AM that Soviet nuclear missiles were on their way, and were expected to strike at exactly 9:02 near Tampa, Florida.
All of NORAD was immediately alerted and scrambled to respond, but the time passed without any detonations, causing NORAD to delay any actions.
It was later discovered that the Moorestown radar operators were confused because the facility was running a test tape that simulated a missile launch from Cuba when a satellite unexpectedly appeared over the horizon.
Additional radars were not operating at the time, and the Moorestown operators were not informed that the satelite was inbound because the facility that handled such operations was on other work related to the situation in Cuba.
January 25, 1995 – Nuclear worries remain after the Soviet Union
Four years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation’s first president, Boris Yeltsin, almost started a nuclear war.
Russian early warning radar detected a launch of a missile with similar characteristics to a submarine-launched Trident missile off the coast of Norway.
The detected missile was actually a Norwegian Black Brant scientific rocket which was on a mission to study the aurora borealis. Norwegian authorities had informed the Kremlin of the launch, but the radar operators were not informed.
Yeltsin was given the Cheget, Russia’s version of the nuclear briefcase (sometimes known as the Football), and the launch codes for Russia’s missile arsenal. Russia’s submarines were also placed on alert.
Fortunately, Yeltsin’s belief that it was a false alarm proved correct, and Russian satellites confirmed that there was no activity from US missile sites.
19 Horrifying Times the World Almost Ended For Humankind
A truly terrifying list: 19 Horrifying Times the World Almost Ended For Humankind! Sometimes us humans don’t quite realize just how fragile our lives are. In fact, it’s quite shocking how often we come close to wiping ourselves out.
Even today we struggle to deal with potentially catastrophic situations, such as the rapidly warming global temperatures caused by climate change, or the possibility of a second cold war between the United States and North Korea.
Despite this, humanity has prevailed time and time again, despite many setbacks. We’ve lived through wars, plagues, and natural disasters. For the most part, we’ve come out the other side mostly unscathed.
That doesn’t mean we haven’t had our fair share of extremely close calls. History shows us there were plenty of times the end of days has come knocking on our door. So far we’ve been pretty lucky. However, here are 19 times the world almost ended, and probably would have if the situations were slightly different.
NORAD Computer Chip Malfunction
The Cold War lasted from 1945 to 1990 and was a period of time during which it seemed the whole world was on a hair trigger. Of course, nothing exemplifies this more than the numerous nuclear scares that took place when tensions reached its peak.
One of these such nuclear scares took place on June 3rd, 1980. At 3 AM, the president’s national security advisor, Zbigniew Brezezinski, received an emergency phone call warning him that a large US-bound nuclear strike was imminent.
Luckily the attack was quickly discovered to be a false alarm and the counterattack was called off before any serious damage was done. It was only a short while later that a culprit was discovered; a single malfunctioning 46 cent computer chip at the pentagon.18
The Eruption of Thera
The eruption was estimated to have had the destructive force of 40 atomic bombs exploding in unison. Interesting, the eruption was 100 times more powerful than the eruption of Mount Vesuvius that devastated Pompeii in 79 CE.
Needless to say, it became one of the defining catalysts in the demise of the early Bronze Age civilization of the Minoans.
The eruption of Thera obliterated the city of Akrotiri, present-day Santorini, and caused earthquakes and tsunamis that nearly destroyed the surrounding islands, including the widely populated island of Crete.
It also created a massive cloud of volcanic ash that settled across Europe and altered global weather patterns in the years that followed.16
Asteroid 2018 GE3
The thought of a giant asteroid crashing into our little planet and sending us the way of the dinosaurs is terrifying. What is even more terrifying is that it nearly became a reality on April 14, 2018.
First noticed by the Catalina Sky Survey, Asteroid 2018 GE3 shot past Earth only a few hours after its detection. At its the closest point, the asteroid was only 192,317 kilometers from Earth, less than half the distance between Earth and the Moon.
With an estimated diameter of 48–110 meters, this asteroid is currently believed to be the largest known object to have past so close to us. There is no doubt that had it made contact with the earth, the devastation would have been astronomical.15
The Carrington Event
In the 1800s, many telegraph operators were familiar with telegraph lines going down due to thunderstorms and other electromagnetic disturbances. However, one killer storm took them completely by surprise!
Between August 28th to September 2nd, the earth experienced its wildest geomagnetic storms in recorded history. Communication around the world was wiped out causing numerous electrical failures and accidents.
These storms were discovered to be the cause of a huge solar flare known as a Coronal Mass Ejection or CME. Fortunately, the world bounced back after a couple of days without telegraphs and some weird weather.
Interestingly, if the same geomagnetic storm took place now, our electrically dependent and interconnected society would suffer severe and possibly apocalyptic repercussions.14
Reston, Virginia Ebola Crisis
The Ebola virus continues to strike fear into all who hear about it, and with good reason. This highly contagious disease is nearly impossible to contain, and vaccines have been found to have varying levels of success. Unfortunately, those left untreated often wind up dead less than two weeks following the first symptoms.
So far, the worst outbreaks have yet to reach any major population centers. However, that nearly changed in 1989 when a number of macaque monkeys imported from the Philippines to the US were found to have the virus.
The monkeys were sent to Reston, Virginia for lab testing and all of them died suddenly from a suspiciously Ebola-like virus. To make matters worse, blood samples from a number of researchers who had come in contact with the monkeys also tested positive for the virus.
Luckily, after days of panic, it was concluded that the particular strain of Ebola that killed the monkeys didn’t pose any harm to humans. However, the event did illustrate just how easily wide-scale outbreaks could happen, as well as demonstrate just how unprepared we were at the time to deal with such a pandemic.12
The Unstoppable Super Flu
As Jeff Goldblum once said; “your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
While Dr. Yoshihiro Kawaoka wasn’t trying to bring back long extinct reptiles, his studies of the H5N1 bird flu in 2011 certainly raised some serious questions about how far some people are willing to go in the name of science.
By modifying strains of the avian influenza virus, Kawaoka attempted to create a new hybrid strain of the virus that could bypass the human immune system. The scariest part was just how close he had gotten before the study was shut down due to it being a threat to the health of the entire human race.
Kawaoka had managed to create a virus that could be transmitted via the air between test animals held in separate cages and was believed to be only a single mutation away from being so deadly to humans that the body literally had no way to combat it.11
The Bonilla Comet
When Mexican astronomer José Bonilla claimed to have observed over 400 dark unidentified flying objects cross in front of the sun while observing sunspots on August 12th, 1883, most of the scientific community wrote it off as a hoax or a high-flying flock of Geese.
At the time, that seemed to be the end of the story. Then, in 2011, a new study into Bonilla’s observations and the pictures he had taken revealed something terrifying.
The dark unidentified objects were not, in fact, a bunch of flying birds at all. As it turns out, they were most likely fragments of a billion-ton comet that passed within 8000 kilometers of Earth, less than the width of Russia!10
Genetically Altered Bacteria
The mid-1990s was a time of many scientific advancements around the world. That being said, for every new computer or more eco-friendly car, there was a failure. One such failure could have had astronomical effects on the world, and it came in one of the smallest packages imaginable; bacteria.
Genetically modified bacteria, to be precise. Created by a German biotech company, Klebsiella Planticola was a supposedly helpful microbe that would convert dead plant matter into ethanol, which could then be used in everything from powering our cars to creating drinkable alcohol.
The scientists were quite pleased with the success of their project, and by 1994 they had a working strain of the bacteria that was ready for field testing.
Fortunately, independent testing at Oregon State University found something that the company producing it had somehow missed. They discovered that K. Planticola didn’t wait until plants had died to begin fermenting them, and every plant it was tested on died soon after.
To make things worse, K. Planticola was based on a bacteria present in the decomposition of every type of terrestrial plant on Earth, meaning that it could potentially cause a mass plant extinction that could devastate farms and forests all over the world.
Needless to say, the field tests were called off and all plans to unintentionally create a global plant super plague were put on hold indefinitely.9
The Black Death
One of the most devastating global epidemics in history was the Black Death. It was the name of given to a massive outbreak of the bubonic plague that struck in Europe and Asia in the mid 14th century.
Europe had heard of the so-called “Great Pestilence” in the years leading up to its introduction to the western world, however, it didn’t prepare them for what was to come.
The ships were quickly sent out of the harbor, but the damage had already been done. The plague quickly washed over the rest of Europe, wiping out close to a third of its population by the year 1951.7
2012 Coronal Mass Ejection
Remember how we said that the Carrington Event would have been catastrophic in today’s technology-dependent world? Because that’s almost exactly what happened in 2012. On July 23rd, a huge Coronal Mass Ejection easily as powerful as the 1859 solar superstorm came speeding in Earth’s direction.
Luckily for us, it missed, but only barely. The ejection passed Earth by less than a week, and many scientists and economists estimate that the cost of damages had it hit Earth could have exceeded 2 trillion dollars and taken decades of recovery time.6
Cuban Missile Crisis
Often cited as the single most intense 13 days of the cold war, the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis was a nearly two-week-long period of time during which a single misstep could have sent the entire world into nuclear war.
This action violated a previous agreement between the two nuclear superpowers, and over the next couple of days the situation ramped up exponentially.
After days of tense negotiation and a number of dangerously close calls to all out war, the lengthy stalemate was brought to an end. President John Kennedy and the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev were able to strike a last-second deal.4
The Spanish Flu is widely considered to be one of, if not the worst, global epidemics to strike the human race. Starting around January of 1918, the disease quickly swept across the world, infecting over a third of the world’s population in just over a year. In a matter of months, the virus had caused the average life expectancy of Americans to drop by 12 years.
Aided by the first World War, the flu spread quickly across Europe. Fueled by close contact and unsanitary conditions, entire troops were taken down by it.
The flu was not limited to Europe and spread with vicious intent. When the pandemic had subsided, cases of the Spanish flu had been found even on isolated islands in the Arctic and South Pacific.
Do you still sleep comfortably?