The future of the Earth: Is this the end of the world?

Earthquakes. Hurricanes. Floods. What is happening to our planet?
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The Independent Online

Is this the end of the world? The earth shakes in Asia and a generation of children is lost. The wind flails America and a city is destroyed. A giant wave rises in the Indian Ocean and whole islands are drowned along with swathes of coastland.

The sea is turning to acid, the air is choking us, the polar ice caps are melting. Famine, pestilence and plague used to be dread words from the Bible; now they are reasons for compassion fatigue. Bird flu threatens to sweep across the globe, killing millions of people.

No wonder some people believe we are living in the End Times. Fear the Beast, say the Christian fundamentalists. Down with the Great Satan, say the hardline Islamists. Stockpile your food and run for the hills, say cultists who predict the end will come at 2.30pm on Tuesday. Or a week on Friday. Or next year. Definitely.

Even those of us who are less convinced that the end is absolutely nigh do watch the news, read the papers or flee the latest natural disaster and wonder what on earth is happening to our planet. Is this the beginning of the end?

If it is, then the apocalypse will be shown live on a giant television screen in Devon. The destruction will be mapped out in lines and symbols and pretty colours by a supercomputer at the Meteorological Office that takes data from all over the globe and the atmosphere.

This airy, futuristic glass complex on the outskirts of Exeter is where Tony Blair met 200 leading scientists from many countries in February, and they warned him that global calamity was closer than ever because of climate change.

This is also where the changing weather of the world is watched. One screen shows the rain falling on the desperate people still lost among the ruins of Kashmir. The clouds are darkening over the mountains as a scientist watches triangles move across his screen. He types out a message for the Foreign Office, for relief workers, for British families flying out in search of their loved ones and for anyone else who will listen. Tents are what the people need, he says, shelter from the storm that he sees coming: "An organised band of heavy rain," in the language of the Met.

Watching this, waiting to see the man who knows what the weather will be doing in 50 years time, I am thinking about a conversation on the telephone with Professor John McCloskey, head of the school of environmental sciences at the University of Ulster at Coleraine. What he had to say was surprising: "There is no basis in fact for the perception that earthquakes are becoming more frequent."

Surely they're killing more people than ever though? "The answer is not at all clear," he says. "The Tangshan earthquake in 1974 killed half a million people. Back in the 1500s there was another earthquake in China that may have caused more deaths than any other in history."

But Professor McCloskey thinks two things definitely are happening. The first is that rich countries are putting up buildings that can better withstand earthquakes. "The Californian earthquake of 1906 killed 100,000 people," he said. "One of a similar size today in the same area would only kill 100 people."

The opposite is true in overcrowded, underdeveloped countries. There the technology is unavailable to the poor, who are forced to live in the most vulnerable areas, often in buildings that are inappropriate. "The same earthquake in somewhere like Indonesia might easily kill 100,000," says Professor McCloskey. The children of Kashmir were killed by concrete school buildings put up cheaply by their government, in ignorance or defiance of the wisdom of generations. So there are not more earthquakes, just millions more people living in the wrong places.

But what about the weather? That really does feel like it's going crazy. "We know with certainty that the amount of carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases has risen very considerably and is still rising," says Dr Geoff Jenkins of the Met Office. "We also know that when you put more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere you trap heat and a rise in global temperatures follows. By the end of the century the average temperature over land will have risen by five degrees."

The world is getting hotter. Remember the gorgeous summer of 2003, all sunbathing in the park and trips to the seaside? It wasn't so much fun for the 15,000 people who died across Europe as a result of the heat. Or the farmers in Spain and France whose crops failed, or the water-board workers in this country who walked across the parched, cracked reservoir bowls and wondered how to slake our society's insatiable thirst.

By 2050 we will have summers like that in Britain every other year if the Met Office is right. That might sound attractive on a gloomy autumn Sunday, but it has grave implications for power and water supplies and public health. We are still the lucky ones though: by the end of the century half the land in the world will be suffering from drought, and nearly a third from extreme drought. The famines of Darfur and Niger will seem mild. Millions will die. Meanwhile, those who are not currently short of water may become submerged under it. Global warming means more rain in some countries, where land will become saturated, lakes overflow and rivers burst their banks. There will be a lot more flooding.

"Sea levels are rising, that is indisputable, and it brings a greatly increased risk of damage from storm surges like the one we saw with Hurricane Katrina," says Dr Jenkins. Even where defences have been built they may be rendered obsolete by the rise. The Amazon rainforest will die and sea ice melt at the poles within a century, according to one Met model. That will have disastrous results for wildlife.

"Catastrophic events such as hurricanes, typhoons and cyclones have increased over the last 30 years, and the destructive power of hurricanes has doubled," says Dr Jenkins. "We don't know whether this is part of a cycle and will settle down again - the records do not go far back enough to tell us - but the evidence suggests we ought to be worried."

So, earthquakes are killing more people, hurricanes are becoming more intense, floods are happening more often and drought is spreading. It has long been a truism that our grandchildren will live in a more dangerous place but actually that sounds a bit silly, even insulting, when you think of the many British people with relatives in the very parts of Asia, Africa and the Americas that are suffering right now.

Should we panic? Possibly, for many reasons. We could be wiped out by a massive asteroid from space, for one.

This is not as unlikely as it sounds, say the scientists looking for a way to prevent it, and who are increasingly being taken seriously by their governments.

Nuclear war also remains a good bet for global destruction, however much we prefer not to talk about it. It is no longer just superpowers that have a finger on the deadly button.

But the climatologists, the scientists who predict the future and try to get our leaders to listen, believe that the most likely apocalypse involves a longer, more painful death for humankind. This, according to them, is one way our world may end: it starts with the rising intensity and frequency of the hurricanes, floods and droughts we are experiencing now. Famine and chaos increase in the poorest and most unprepared countries, killing thousands of people at first, then millions as infrastructures collapse and civil wars rage. As some nations see their coastlines disappear and others become deserts, a huge wave of migration begins. The developed countries cannot cope with the influx of environmental refugees. Major wars are fought over religion, oil and water supplies, causing destruction and the breakdown of societies. Meanwhile sea life is dying as the oceans are poisoned, crops are failing as the weather goes mad and more people starve.

Melting polar ice causes the collapse of the Gulf Stream, a channel of water that provides as much heat in winter as the sun. Without it there is a big freeze. Britain and most of Europe are completely shut down. With humanity reeling, the melting ice caps finally disappear. This causes a massive increase in sea levels that wipes out nations and sends huge tidal waves to swallow even major cities like New York and London. Across the planet, much land that is not frozen is flooded or barren. The remnant of humankind is in serious trouble. The end of the species really is nigh.

It won't happen tomorrow. The ice caps may have started melting, but it could easily take a thousand years for them to go. We are not experiencing the apocalypse quite yet, although it may have begun.

Such speculations are the luxury of those of us who live in rich places where flood defences can be built, plans laid and food is plentiful, the ones who have the power to do something about it. Most of the world does not. For those who have the misfortune to live in Banda Aceh, Muzaffarabad or whichever community is next on nature's hit list then yes, this really does feel very much like the end of the world.

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