Now more than ever we are seeing how fragile mankind’s existence can be. Humans all over the world are so interconnected, each one’s actions can have a ripple effect with consequences that can cascade globally. These consequences may become so catastrophic, that according to scientists, it can eventually lead to humankind’s extinction.
While many doomsday scenarios in popular culture may seem out of touch, this doesn't mean that there are no real threats to humanity’s existence. According to the most recent Global Challenges Report by the Global Challenges Foundation, there are many current threats to humankind’s existence that arise as a result of human activity. Others like natural catastrophes are beyond human control but its impact can be scaled significantly with global cooperation.
The first step is acknowledging these threats and learning whatever humans can about these risks to allow word leaders, experts, and scientists to mitigate them.
10. Nuclear War
The threat of annihilation caused by a nuclear war remains present more than 70 years after a nuclear bomb killed 150,000 people in Hiroshima, Japan. What many learned during this catastrophic moment in history is that the presence of nuclear weapons in modern-day society has the potential to put humanity’s existence at risk.
According to the Arms Control Association, the world’s nuclear states has a staggering total of 14,000 nuclear warheads, 90% of which belong to Russia and the United States. Meanwhile, researchers from Rutgers University, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and the University of Colorado found that a nuclear war just between these two nuclear packing countries could cause nuclear winter. Aside from the immediate destruction of lives and death due to radiation, a nuclear winter could put the planet into a mini ice age marked by a severe agricultural and ecological collapse that can in turn lead to famine.
9. Biological Warfare
According to the Global Challenges Report, some chemical and biological weapons possess great catastrophic potential. Poisonous chemicals, for example, can be aerosolized or spread into the water supplies polluting an entire region's systems and killing hundreds if not thousands of people.
Recent developments in synthetic biology and genetic engineering have also become a concern since new technological advancements in these fields make it possible for laboratories to create highly infectious and deadly substances. “Such pathogens could be released accidentally from a facility, or intentionally released in large population centres,” the report explains. What’s even more alarming is that unlike nuclear weapons, which require complex engineering and more resources to produce, biological and chemical weapons can be developed with fewer resources at a lower cost.
8. Global Pandemic
Recent events have shown how a virus can spread rapidly all over the world and how it can drastically damage economies, and claim thousands of lives. Many scientists believe that the Coronaviris pandemic which likely originated from a pathogen in bats, won’t be the last one. As humans continue to encroach onto natural habitats and destroy wildlife the world will continue to see more zoonotic diseases jump from animals to humans.
Experts believe that if current activities and attitudes towards the treatment of wildlife continue, humans need to brace themselves for more infectious disease outbreaks, even ones that can be so potent it can threaten the existence of millions of people worldwide.
7. Climate Change
Many experts believe that climate change poses the greatest threat to humankind today, so much so that scientists and experts have been convening to discuss this phenomenon for years. According to a special report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change titled Global Warming of 1.5˚C, the world’s temperature has already increased by 1˚C since the preindustrial period due to human activity. If trends continue, humans will see a further increase in temperature which can lead to severe storms, worse heat waves, droughts, and flooding. It can also cause a rise in sea levels which can lead to coastal flooding that eventually will affect drinking water and wastewater treatments. These in turn will cause a spread of waterborne diseases. All these changes will have cascading consequences worldwide but the most notable of which is the disturbance of the ecosystem and significant loss of biodiversity.
6. Loss of Biodiversity
The proper functioning of the Earth’s ecosystem depends largely on the complex interplay between the 9 million types of living things living on the planet. However, in recent years, the world has witnessed a rapid disruption and loss of rich biodiversity according to researchers from the University College Hospital in Ibadan. Human activities, the increasing world population, pollution, exploitation of natural resources, among others are taking its toll on the ecosystem. Among the casualties are species of plants and animals. Recent research by The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) has found that up to 1 million species of plants and animals now face extinction.
The annihilation of many species can, in the long run, threaten access to clean air and water and drastically affect food production worldwide. Severe disruption in biodiversity may also give rise to the emergence of more infectious diseases that can threaten the human population worldwide.
5. Artificial Intelligence
Many scientists including world-renowned astrophysicist Stephen Hawking believe that artificial intelligence will be difficult to control even by their creators in the long term, can surpass human capabilities, and eventually cause the extinction of the human race.
If deployed carelessly, and left to become too powerful, scientists believe thinking machines could become more dominant, much more sophisticated, and evolved than humans. After taking over jobs, AI can eventually cause a global catastrophe than can wipe out mankind or push humans to extinction.
Many fear that nanotechnology or engineering at the molecular atomic level can be used for warfare and become highly destructive with many unintended consequences. Advanced molecular nanotechnology will enable scientists to construct "bacterium-scale self-replicating mechanical robots" that can destroy the biosphere by poisoning it, burning it, or blocking out sunlight according to research by Professor Nick Bostrom of the Faculty of Philosophy at Oxford University.
“A person of malicious intent in possession of this technology might cause the extinction of intelligent life on Earth by releasing such nanobots into the environment,” Bostrom explains. This is why efforts are being made to keep this technology out of the wrong hands. Although according to Professor Bastrom the use of nanotechnology can be difficult to regulate.
3. Super Volcanoes
The supervolcanic eruption of Mount Toba 75,000 years ago almost led to the extinction of mankind. Mount Toba, located In North Central Indonesia, released 2,800 cubic km of ash and lava during the Earth's worst volcanic eruption which covered much of the sky for a very long time. According to historians, this event plunged the world into a severe ice age.
Now many believe another explosion of this magnitude can have even deadlier consequences considering dense cities surrounding supervolcanoes today. One famous supervolcano is located underneath the Yellowstone National Park. Many volcanologists believe that its eruption can have catastrophic effects on many US cities today.
Asteroids are huge rock formations that navigate the solar system. A collision between these asteroids and Earth in the past caused the extinction of dinosaurs. Now a cosmochemist who published the book Catching Stardust: Comets, Asteroids and the Birth of the Solar System believes history can repeat itself.
She says that at some point, a comet or an asteroid is bound to hit the Earth and it will have devastating consequences. A massive asteroid, she believes, can wipe out mankind when it hits the planet.
1. The Unknown
Nothing instills fear more than the unknown. Many experts believe that there are still numerous unknown threats lurking out there beyond human comprehension. According to the Global Challenges Report, rapid economic, scientific, and technological development bring unforeseen risks in its wake. “It is therefore likely that many future global catastrophic risks are at present unknown,” the report concludes.
While very little is still understood about these potential risks, humans have developed methods to screen, monitor, and scan them. Scientists continue to conduct studies to find them, in an effort to mitigate their effects.