We’re a paranoid species as a whole, and the idea that things are about to go sour has been echoed up the ages, from the Mayan predictions of the end of the world through to Nostradamus.
However, it is true that the wider universe has a quite few tricks up its collective sleeve to wipe us from the map, so that mad bloke on Oxford St with the sandwich board is actually right - doom is nigh! We’ve rounded up the most up-to-date and likely horsemen of the apocalypse.
Death by Asteroid
Pretty likely this one, given previous form (well flagged, dinosaurs), and given the number of potential asteroids out there to get on a collision course with, it’s frankly amazing we’ve got this far. Scientists are keeping a close eye on the skies with the next major collision tipped to be Asteroid 2012 TC4, making an unwelcome appearance on October 2017. Luckily TC4 is reckoned to be about 40m across, which should only dent the earth - a more serious proposition being the 1km-wide asteroid 1950 DA, which has a 1 in 4000 chance of annihilating civilisation as we know it on 16 March, 2880. In the immortal words of Monty Python’s Meaning of Life, makes you feel a bit insignificant really…
Death by Solar Flare
The jury is very much out on how much actual damage a gigantic X-class solar flare could do, with predictions varying from total destruction of all technology, followed by radiation death, to a bit of navigational trouble with the TomTom. On the downside, solar flares are very much an ongoing fact of life, so fingers crossed the sun doesn’t suddenly throw us a curve ball and bat us back to the stone age. Obviously the sun is due to engulf the Earth in a few billion years anyway, so it’s a temporary reprieve at best in universal terms.
Death by Volcanic Eruption
Another highly likely contender, huge volcanic eruptions have been a regular feature of life on Earth since its uncertain beginnings, and a major event will be certain to have far-reaching effects. The biggest historical eruption of Indonesia's Tambora, in 1815, saw days of minor eruptions culminate in a blast that fired an ash cloud to the edge of space. The resulting 200m tonnes of sulphur dropped global temperatures for years - 1816 in England became known as the ‘year without a summer’. Not only that, but the top 10 most active volcanoes in the world list holds four within hours of the UK. At best all the flights will be cancelled, at worst it’ll be Pompeii all over again.
Death by Geomagnetic Reversal
Very much the dark horse of the apocalypse, geomagnetic reversal could have a surprisingly devastating impact on humankind. By suddenly reversing the polarity of the planet’s magnetic field (an event that scientists agree has happened regularly before and is due to begin happening more frequently), we would be at the mercy of solar radiation, as well as having a lot of useless technology. New data shows that the Earth's magnetic field has recently been weakening at a rate of around five per cent per decade, leading many to speculate that a pole reversal is imminent.
Death by Rampant Algal Bloom
In a day of the triffids-style twist, we are indeed being stalked by murderous plants, just not quite as you’d expect. There’s a rising number of vast algal blooms occurring in waterways and oceans due to runoff from intensive farming, among other factors. Some algae contain natural neurotoxins, others release toxic gases as they rot down. Over the last few years China, the US and the coasts of Brittany have been struck down.
Death by Sentient Robots
We don’t really need to elaborate too much on the dangers of this one, especially after the creation of Skynet, a military satellite network (initially launched in 2007), and the fact that the US military is hurriedly building military spec, unstoppable robots. An even more ominous recent development is the question of whether robot drones should be able to decide themselves to pull the trigger, rather than being remotely operated by humans. We can't even jump a wall now to leg it away from them, with MIT's Cheetah now a more accomplished hurdler than Linford Christie. Death by AI robot even has Elon Musk worried.
Incurable Disease Pandemic
As a wide variety of bacteria become resistant to our wonder-drug antibiotics, we face the worrying prospect of being suddenly bumped off by e-coli in a supermarket salad. Quite how much of an impact antibiotic-resistant bacteria will have is unclear, as scientists scramble to find new compounds to battle them. However, the worst case scenario is pretty bleak indeed - the WHO reported that there were about 480,000 new cases of multidrug-resistant tuberculosis in 2013, which is likely to rise.
Death by Carbon Bomb
Probably the most boring, and thus most likely cataclysm, is that we continue to munch earth’s resources at a rapid rate, and end up suffocating ourselves in the toxic mess we create. A case in point is outlined emotively by the Guardian here, and makes for fairly depressing reading.