The Current

Supervolcanoes, asteroids, climate change: This author looks at the end of the world, and how we might save it

Bryan Walsh's new book End Times: A Brief Guide to the End of the World looks at a pretty grim topic, but he tells Laura Lynch that there is hope to stave off Armageddon if humanity can learn to work together.

'We will only survive if we can work together,' says Bryan Walsh

An asteroid hitting the Earth is just one way that humanity could meet its end. (Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

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Doomsday preppers are approaching the apocalypse all wrong, according to a writer who has examined the various catastrophes that could befall humanity.

"It's important for everyone to be prepared to deal with a natural disaster … you should have water in hand, you should have medicines," said Bryan Walsh, author of End Times: A Brief Guide to the End of the World.

"But when I talk about these big existential threats, you know, a doomsday shelter is not going to save you — you're not going to be able to survive on your own," he said.

Walsh started looking at these extinction-level events after working as a journalist on SARS, and later climate change. His new book looks at threats like those — plus asteroids, nuclear war and supervolcanoes — as well as the people working to stop them.

Bryan Walsh's new book End Times: A Brief Guide to the End of the World takes a hopeful look at a pretty grim topic. (Hachette Book Group)

He told The Current's Laura Lynch that "we need to actually come together as a society, as a globe, to really prepare for these threats."

"We will only survive if we can work together."

We could 'cool down' supervolcanoes

In 1815, the massive eruption of Mount Tambora in present-day Indonesia led to global climatic effects — to the point that 1816 became known as "the year without a summer," said Walsh.

"That's because all the debris and the sulphur that was thrown into the atmosphere by this titanically powerful explosion actually blanketed the globe, and reduced the amount of sunlight coming in — it created a mini volcanic winter," he explained.

The drop in temperature caused crops to fail, leading to starvation and mass migration. 

Nowadays we can monitor seismic activity, which Walsh said could help us to prepare if we think an eruption is coming  — even by storing food.

The Norris Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, is evidence of the simmering volcanic activity that geologists say one day could erupt as a devastating supervolcano. (Beth Harpaz/Associated Press)

He said some people are working on more ambitious plans, including NASA scientist Brian Wilson, who has looked at ways of stopping the potentially "world-ending" supervolcano lying dormant under Yellowstone National Park in the U.S. 

"He has a theory that you could essentially cool down the supervolcano over time by pumping huge amounts of water into the magma reservoir that's underneath Yellowstone," he said.

Walsh said the operation would be at "the very edge" of our current capabilities, but he appreciated that Wilson is "thinking about what we might need to do over the course of centuries to really avert a risk like that."

Walsh pointed out that the last time a real supervolcano erupted was in New Zealand, 26,000 years ago, and that what happened in 1815 doesn't compare.

"We've never experienced a supervolcano … all the ones we've seen so far are nothing compared to what could happen," he said.

In 1908, a meteorite struck the Earth near Tunguska, Russia. It levelled trees for kilometres around the impact site. (Associated Press)

We could stop an asteroid (theoretically)

Ever since we realized the dinosaurs were driven to extinction by a six-mile-wide asteroid, Walsh said a planetary strike has been one of the more popular ways to imagine humanity's fiery death.

But it's a threat that humans have responded to, he added.

Since the 1990s, scientists have been scanning the skies to track asteroids, and to spot any on a potential collision course with Earth, he explained, adding that we've gotten pretty good at it.

"We actually have potentially — at least theoretically — the ability to stop them, to deflect them, to use technology, to use nuclear weapons … to actually slow down an asteroid so it misses the Earth," he said. "That's kind of amazing." 

"This planet built around for 4.5 billion years, and now there's a species on it that actually protect itself from a major existential threat," he said.

Students in Vancouver protest against inaction on climate change in September — but not everyone is as motivated to tackle the issue. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Need to 'short-circuit' inaction on climate change

In late 2018, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a dire warning on climate change, described by one of its lead authors as "a life-or-death situation."

Walsh said what makes climate change different from other existential threats is that while it's "happening right now," all around us — the process to fight it is a slow one.

"If we want to reduce warming in the future, we need to make sacrifices now. But the positive side of that will mostly be felt by future generations," he told Lynch.

"And we're not very good about caring about the future."

He said we should be looking at technological solutions to "short-circuit" that inaction.

We've done it before, he said, in a cycle where "we face new challenges... we invent new technologies that expand what we're able to do, and then that creates new challenges." 

"The world is never safe, the problem is never solved, we just hopefully stay as innovative and as adaptive as we always have been," he told Lynch.

"And hopefully that will never change."

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Alison Masemann.