Question of the Week

How will life end on Earth?

Mon, 27th Oct 2014

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Abigail asked:

What will cause the end of life on planet Earth? Will it be the when the sun dies or something else?


Beyond Earth

Graihagh -  Will hungry humans be the cause of the apocalypse or will it be something like the catastrophic comet that cause the dinosaurs to go extinct?  We put it to you on Facebook and Paul came back with this...

Paul -  Humans may survive, breeding, warring, poisoning, destroying and plundering forever but I fear, nothing habitable will be left behind, for humans are cancer to all life.

Graihagh -  Whereas Jeremy thought life was just to hardy to ever go extinct.

Jeremy -  Life is persistent stuff.  NASA tried to create a sterile room to build Mars rovers to prevent interplanetary contamination.  What did they find?  Bacteria that evolved to eat the paint in the sterile room.

Graihagh -  So, will life always find a way to endure, no matter what happens to Earth?  To find out, we spoke to Astronomer Royal, Martin Reese from Cambridge University.

Martin -  We know that the sun will die in about 6 billion years.  When that happens, itíll flare up, become a red giant and engulf the inner planets and end any life remaining on Earth.  Long before that, in fact, life have become uncomfortable on Earth because the sun is getting brighter all the time.  So after about 1 billion years from today, the ocean would start to boil.

Graihagh -  The Atlantic boiling, our sun exploding... 6 billion years from now, do we have any hope?

Martin -  I would expect it in a few hundred years, thereíll be communities living away from the Earth on asteroids or on Mars and they will in fact, use genetic technology and cyborg technology to modify themselves.  So, they'll be post humans already.  But if we imagine that the Earth has ahead of it, more time that itís taken to go all the way from simple organisms to humans, then we can imagine that by the time the sun dies, thereíll be life descended from human life, all through the galaxy perhaps and taking many different forms.

Graihagh -  So, human life may end on Earth but not elsewhere in the universe.  Thanks, Martin.  Next week, weíll be twirling our moustaches over this beaded beauty of a question sent in by listener Mark...

Mark -  I've been taking part in November which is a fundraising for cancer research where men raise money by growing moustache over the course of the month of November.  Hence, that 'M' in November.  Itís been 10 years since I've grown any hair on my chain and this year, itís growing white.  The hair on my head isnít white, itís not grey. My question is, why is my facial hair growing white and I don't really want people to think I'm dying it. 


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Honestly... either some biological disease from acts of war... or flesh eating cats. no really though... if there is anything we've seen from the past.. its diseases that have done the most harm in the history of humans. Oceanbliss, Tue, 16th Dec 2014

I think we can put up a parasol for the Earth to get another few billion years out of her. David Cooper, Tue, 16th Dec 2014

Humans are irrelevant. Life will continue until there is no water left for the last cell to divide. alancalverd, Tue, 16th Dec 2014

I sometimes think Green peace who say "make peace not war" have got it the wrong way around it would be better for the world if humans killed themselves off.
syhprum, Wed, 17th Dec 2014

There are a lot of bad genes in people because rape and pillage was a major part in our evolutionary history with the bad guys winning repeatedly. It's really quite remarkable that so many people are nice and civilised despite that. What we need to do is reprogram all the bad stuff out of our species so that we no longer have any abusive individuals spoiling it for the rest. Once that's done, we have billions of years ahead of us here where we are no longer a negative thing. David Cooper, Wed, 17th Dec 2014

If I had to bet I'd say that someday in the very distant future some insane person will figure out how to destroy the earth in a major nuclear detonation and that same person will do it for the hatred he has for all or most people. And there's plenty of reason to do it. Almost every single day we bump into people who act rude, mean or will act violently or threaten you. There are plenty of cops who are power hungry and love to toss their authority around to make themselves feel good. There are doctors who let their patients suffer so they don't get into trouble with the FDA or the DEA. The list goes on and on. If this same person was abused as child and has grown up with a hatred for mankind in their heart then I can easily imagine it happening. So in, say, 100,000,000 years I can see it being possible for the average physicist to figure it out. PmbPhy, Thu, 18th Dec 2014

I don't know if we will make it. too many things going wrong at the same time.

1. We're living in a mass extinction
2. We're ignoring global warming
3. We will most probably be choosing non renewable sources of energy as we get closer to a panic.
4. We've built a economic religion based on the concept of 'infinite resources, and needing a constant economical growth.
5. We're over breeding, the last hundred years we went from approximately one billion people to 7, and counting.
6. and the last one is that we refuse to question ourselves, our motives and our stupidity.

then of course, with acidity of the oceans, one of the first food chains we have and use should disappear.

That has nothing to do with the prospect of continuing life on this planet though. I'm sure there will be life even if we became a extinct species. Just not us. yor_on, Tue, 23rd Dec 2014

We pause for a moment of optimism in response to yor_on's post.

1. We're living in a mass extinction - But unlike the bolide that took out the dinosaurs the cause of this mass extinction is conscious and capable of doing something about it.
2. We're ignoring global warming - We are not yet doing enough, but we are doing a considerable amount and as the indicators become clearer even the naysayers will back off.
3. We will most probably be choosing non renewable sources of energy as we get closer to a panic. - The evidence is to the contrary on this point. The panic reaction, if renewables are insufficient will be nuclear.
4. We've built a economic religion based on the concept of 'infinite resources, and needing a constant economical growth -  This point I concede. Never trust an economist. Their place in hell is only one level above bankers.
5. We're over breeding, the last hundred years we went from approximately one billion people to 7, and counting. - And yet the projections show that the rate of growth is falling and in some countries reversing. 10 billion will still be too many, but it is just manageable.
6. and the last one is that we refuse to question ourselves, our motives and our stupidity Ophiolite, Wed, 24th Dec 2014

Yeah Ophiolite :)

I could be more optimistic, couldn't I? In a way I am, It's a mystery this life, and each one of us are on a journey of discovery. Then again, we also kill, torture, imprison and enslave each other, over pieces of nature and 'ideals'. That one hasn't changed in my view, even though many of us nowadays consider themselves 'democratic' and 'progressive'.

We also seem to believe we're the crown of creation, so expecting ourselves to be able to terraform a whole Earth, if needed and at short notice. That is what I would call hubris, to me we're just a part of a complex web of life, us now running wild, killing of each other as well as other species, not by wars solely, but by blind faith. Maybe not so unlike other population of predatory species, getting opportunities to dominate, but we know about it, and where it lead, and that's our problem. That doesn't change that each one of us are born equal, and die equal. Death doesn't care for money. Neither does Earth.

It's going to be a rude awakening. yor_on, Wed, 24th Dec 2014

Once I thought we could something about it, but as it is today I've started to doubt it. It's like a bad soap opera, in where you see the actors doing the same mistakes over and over again. That doesn't necessarily mean that we can't find a new balance with life and our earth. But those days I guess that the 'forces' that correct us will be way out of our voluntary, individual, control. Some of the reasons to why it looks like it does for us has to lie in the way we're (hard) wired, no matter what color or language one have. And to change those is the same as expecting every human to voluntary start to question himself, and then act on it. I don't expect that to happen, it hasn't so far. yor_on, Wed, 24th Dec 2014

Okay, new years eve, well somewhere, somewhat :)

Fair is fair Ophiolite.

Now I will :) pompous as ever, put up dreams.


It can change your world, and mine, but most of all, our kids. It's the way we talk today, and using it positively we will be able to change our thinking, and when we do that, we will change our world.


As long as we read something more than just physics.

Behavioral sciences.

We definitely need it, but we need to be able to take that step outside our comfort zone. We need to use ethics. yor_on, Fri, 2nd Jan 2015

In essence.

Can we still dream?

Because when you look at it, and I do. It's not the way people disappear from me, by age or other circumstances, it's our dreams. What do we want? Do we really want to sit in some (as compared to the Earth we left) small rocket, leaving all our birthrights and our kids, waiting for some miracle, somewhere else?

Or are we what I think we are?
Dreamers, that will make a change? yor_on, Fri, 2nd Jan 2015

Diseases are the usual way great civilizations have ended. But in all likely hood it would be water radiation poisoning from Fukushima or any others that may occur. AnotherView, Wed, 14th Jan 2015

Fukishima may have looked serious, but the radiation risk was local, and relatively minor for Japan as a whole.  To have globally toxic radiation levels, you'd need many times the full amount of radionuclides that Fukushima could have released. The oceans and atmosphere together provide enormous volumes for dilution. dlorde, Wed, 14th Jan 2015

I think it is worthwhile to remember that nuclear fuel was mined from the Earth and concentrated for use. In this concentrated form it is quite dangerous, but if returned to the dilution it was originally found in, not likely to be much more hazardous that it was at the outset. I remember reading somewhere that the levels of radiation naturally found in the Andes is significantly higher than those currently found on the Bikini Atoll (where the US did much of its nuclear weapons testing...)

Of course there are some radioisotopes with shorter half-lives that are produced in the reactor that would not have necessarily formed naturally... chiralSPO, Wed, 14th Jan 2015

I think that the nuclear accidents in the Ukraine and Japan caused very little damage on a worldwide scale but the minor accident at Three mile island will be the cause of an untold number of deaths due to delaying the introduction of nuclear power with the contamination caused by fossil fuel continuing. syhprum, Wed, 14th Jan 2015

I'm told that the burning of fossil fuels releases many times more radioactivity into the atmosphere than nuclear plants, leakages and all. dlorde, Wed, 14th Jan 2015

Yes there is far more radioactive metals (and other heavy metals) pollution from coal mining, and  radon release during oil and natural gas extraction. chiralSPO, Thu, 15th Jan 2015

I think there are several questions.
What will be the end of humanity?
What will be the end of all large animals on Earth?
What will be the end of all life on Earth?

Certainly the death of our sun will be traumatic for life on Earth, although assuming advanced spacefaring technology by then, there would be a mass exodus to the outer planets and moons, followed by an attempt to build close orbital platforms around the dying sun, which could potentially provide power for an extended period of time.  However, undoubtedly over the next few billion years, everything we know today will change.

I think you're right, even a large meltdown of a nuclear plant will have mostly local effects.  There could, however, be problems if dozens of nuclear accidents occur contaminating large swatches of land over time.  Still, it is not that life doesn't exist around Chernobyl.  It is just deemed not safe for humans.  Other animals are plentiful. 

Global Nuclear War is always a possibility of massive destruction, potentially killing most, if not all humanity, and many of the larger species.  However, I still hope the powers that control the nuclear arsenals start having a bit of sense.

Disease?  It is possible that one species would be wiped out, but unlikely to be the end of all life.  However, with 7 billion people, there is a very diverse gene pool.  Even with diseases like AIDS. there are a number of people who are naturally immune.  Perhaps one would have to be hit with multiple simultaneous very devistating plagues.  And, even so, it is possible that small pockets of humanity such as the Hawaiian Islands would be able to enforce a strict quarantine protocol, and ride out the storm.

An asteroid or large comet impact is a very real risk, but it would either have to be very large, or have multiple impacts over several days to cause global devastation.  However, over the next few billion years before our sun dies, one would expect Earth to be pummeled by several large asteroids or comets. CliffordK, Mon, 19th Jan 2015

As the expansion of the universe, the earth will also expand until it explode and there couldn't hold any life. Waaah, I'm not so lucky  to see this spectacle.
diethyl, Thu, 22nd Jan 2015


Man may cause his own destruction and very likely take a whole lot of other species with him, but life on Earth will continue until the planet itself is destroyed by some cosmic catastrophe or the inevitable demise of the Sun. Don_1, Thu, 22nd Jan 2015

The new theory Big Rip predicts Dark Energy will drive expansion of the universe to the point that atomic particles will fly apart .. sudden Big Rip in all matter .. end of everything.  Identical to the biblical view .. "elements shall be dissolved in fervent heat". Alohascope, Sat, 16th Jan 2016

It's amazing. I just came across this old thread and was totally fascinated by the comments made to this innocent sounding question.

The question in no way referred to humans or humanity, and yet nearly all of the replies were about humans and humanity.
As if that is all the word life means.
Just found it enlightening to see how so many interpreted the question.
That's all... arthur.manousakis, Sat, 16th Jan 2016

I think it's fair to say, though, that humans are probably the best prospect for global destruction, one way or another. Until we came along, life here had survived armageddon more than once. We're doing an excellent job of ruining the place for everything and everyone and creating a huge human monoculture in the process... chris, Sat, 16th Jan 2016

Chris, what you say can not ube argued with if you only look at Human impact on life.
"Life" on the other hand is continually showing through the discovery of extremophiles, that it can survive in acid, in Space, inside a nuclear reactor according to one report, and almost anywhere we can think of looking for it.
In other words I can see nothing that Humans can do that will destroy all life.
I saw an article once that claimed that even if this planet was blown to smithereens life in some form would still exist on some of the pieces, waiting for the right conditions to go forth and multiply.

So as I stated I was amused at the Anthropic tilt to most of the answers given, when the question in no way referred to Humanity, or Human life. It only asked about "life".
This kind of response in a way shows that subconsciously at least we still think we are the centre of the Universe, even when we say that we don't.
arthur.manousakis, Sun, 17th Jan 2016

But ain't it hypocryte to call them bad genes, while we are from nature a hunter and well the history shows it all:mass murder has allways excisted, and if somebody believes different,in terms of religion, we were never hesitating to kill them..  But what do we do, we go live close together and make up, that you may not punish or kill someone which has made you cripple and we started writing a book, with rules, which easily can be changed, which is absurd and call it te law.  Only one judge could think different then another and first you got away with 6 months in prison, but the other judge gives you 4years in jail..  also depending on a good lawer offcourse.... which few peoples can afford.

Democratie is not our real nature.  We do everything that is bad for relaxation, and a lot of stress, which can damage the brain if it is is constant stress.  But luckely there will be a virus or bacteria, which brings the amount of living peoples,to one in balance with the earth...
richard-38, Fri, 12th Feb 2016

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