When Is the Earth Going to End?

By: Robert Lamb  | 
small hands holding a globe
What will the 26th century look like? Sompong Rattanakunchon/Getty Images

From the 2012 Mayan calendar to conversations about global warming, we are naturally curious about the survival of our planet. While scientists have given us a better idea of what could potentially happen to Earth, it hasn't stopped us from having doomsday predictions.

Join us as we explore the big question at the root of all these thoughts: When is the Earth going to end?


The End of Planet Earth

The end of Earth will likely come about because of the sun in our solar system. This much you might already know, but we actually have an approximate date. Scientists estimate that the end of the world will happen about a billion years from now, specifically in the year 1,000,002,021.

By then, the sun's radiation will vaporize Earth's atmosphere, absorbing all of the oxygen, which will kill all life forms, leaving behind a barren rock. Or as the study says:


"We find that future deoxygenation is an inevitable consequence of increasing solar fluxes, whereas its precise timing is modulated by the exchange flux of reducing power between the mantle and the ocean–atmosphere–crust system. Our results suggest that the planetary carbonate–silicate cycle will tend to lead to terminally CO2-limited biospheres and rapid atmospheric deoxygenation, emphasizing the need for robust atmospheric biosignatures applicable to weakly oxygenated and anoxic exoplanet atmospheres and highlighting the potential importance of atmospheric organic haze during the terminal stages of planetary habitability."

The Start of Simple and Complex Life

Water first appeared on Earth a few billion years ago — 4.3 billion to be more specific. But it took half a billion years after that for the origins of life on the planet.


How Human Beings Might Affect the End of the World

While the end of the world and atmospheric oxygen is somewhere in the far future, human activity might change life on Earth before then. In 1947, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists created the Doomsday Clock.

The clock is "a design that warns the public about how close we are to destroying our world with dangerous technologies of our own making. It is a metaphor, a reminder of the perils we must address if we are to survive on the planet."


Back in the 1940s, nuclear weapons posed the greatest danger. By 2007, the Bulletin acknowledged how climate change, which could lead to an ocean-covered world due to rising sea levels, could get us closer to midnight, aka the time that our life-supporting planet would come to an end.

In 2023, the organization published a statement titled: "A time of unprecedented danger: It is 90 seconds to midnight." Citing the Russian invasion of Ukraine and other factors, the Bulletin moved the hands of the clock forward to "the closest to global catastrophe it has ever been."


Earth, 500 Years Into the Future

If you could travel back in time five centuries, you'd encounter an Aztec empire nearly at the end of its run, fresh paintings from Raphael, Titian and Durer, and cooler temperatures across the Northern Hemisphere. This was a world in the midst of the Little Ice Age (1300 to 1850 C.E.) and a period of vast European exploration now known as the Age of Discovery.

If we looked 500 years into the future and glimpse the Earth of the 26th century, we might find that the planet is as different to us as it would have seemed to residents of the 16th century. But this largely depends on the relationship between human civilization and our natural environment — its past, its present and, of course, its future.


Effects of Climate Change

We've been altering Earth since at least the Agricultural Revolution of the Neolithic Age, and scientists disagree on exactly how many animal extinctions from even before that point should be lain at our feet [source: Boissoneault]. We manipulated the evolution of domestic plant and animal species, transformed the landscape and burned fossil fuels to power our way of life.

As a result, the planet's climate has changed — and is changing still. Some experts date the beginning of human climate change back to the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s, others to slash-and-burn agricultural practices in prehistoric times.

Either way, overwhelming scientific consensus indicates that human activity is almost certainly responsible for climate-warming trends over the last century.

According to NASA, carbon dioxide levels are up to 412 parts per million (ppm) as of December 2019, up from 316 ppm in 1958 when scientists first started tracking CO2. Global temperature was up 2.07 degrees Fahrenheit (1.15 degrees Celsius) since 1880, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Meanwhile, Arctic ice declines 12.85 percent per decade, and sea levels rise 3.3 millimeters per year, says NASA.

In other words, our planet is warming, extreme weather continues to increase and our natural surroundings are changing.

These changes threaten the balance of already highly exploited natural resources. The United Nations warns that the resulting droughts, floods, heat waves and wildfires will only speed up land degradation and accelerate the danger of severe food shortages. Such shortages are exactly the catalyst that historically leads to social unrest, mass migration and conflict.

So on one level, 26th-century Earth will have had to come to terms with climate change. According to some computer models, melting Antarctic ice could cause sea levels to rise by 1 foot (0.3 meters) by the end of this century and 26 feet (8 meters) by the year 2300.

Technological Impact

Perhaps our 26th-century descendants will look back on their ancestors and see that we rallied before the flood. Perhaps they'll see that we made the sorts of technological, cultural and political changes necessary to prevent mass extinctions, political upheaval, environmental destruction and even civilizational collapse.

Or perhaps they'll look back on a people who willingly drove the world into ruin.

Along the way, however, our descendants will advance their technology — and while technology created the risks of anthropogenic climate change and nuclear warfare, it also provides us the potential to change course and improve.

Theoretical physicist and futurist Michio Kaku predicts that in a mere 100 years, humanity will make the leap from a type 0 civilization to a type I civilization on the Kardashev Scale. In other words, we'll become a species that can harness the entire sum of a planet's energy.

Wielding such power, 26th-century humans could be masters of clean energy technologies such as fusion and solar power. Furthermore, they'd be able to manipulate planetary energy to control global climate.

Still, futurists disagree on the timing of such a hypothetical upgrade in our technological prowess — and the upgrade is far from assured. As noted skeptic Michael Shermer pointed out in a 2008 Los Angeles Times article, political and economic forces could very well prevent us from making the great leap.

Technology has improved exponentially since the 1500s, and this pace will likely continue in the centuries to come. Physicist Stephen Hawking proposed that by the year 2600, this growth would see 10 new theoretical physics papers published every 10 seconds. If Moore's Law holds true and both computer speed and complexity double every 18 months, then some of these studies may be the work of highly intelligent machines.

Then again, he also predicted that overcrowding and energy consumption would make the Earth uninhabitable by 2600.

A Futurist's Perspective

What other technologies will shape the world of the 26th century? Futurist and author Adrian Berry believes the average human life span will reach 140 years and that the digital storage of human personalities will enable a kind of computerized immortality. Humans will farm the Earth's oceans, travel in starships and reside in both lunar and Martian colonies while robots explore the outer cosmos.

These technologies may come in handy, at least for a privileged few, if serious changes aren't put in place to deal with climate change.


Lots More Information

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More Great Links

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