By fire and by ice, how the Earth will die
All life will be extinct on our planet in no later than 1.1 billion years.
As the debate rages in the public realm over whether or not global warming is real, there isn't so much in the scientific realm. Of course, it turns out that astronomers have been predicting global warming for quite some time and there's nothing more dire than the predictions of astronomers.
Solar output hasn't been constant throughout history. Stars, like people and everything else in nature have a life cycle. Stars begin as tremendous pockets of hydrogen gas and condense into swirling masses, fusing hydrogen atoms in their cores, forging helium in the process and firing off photons of light.
This process continues unabated for much of the star's life, however it eventually fuses and converts most of the hydrogen in its core and it is then that the star begins to change. Among the changes can be an expansion of the star's outer layers. This is just what will happen with the Sun.
As the outer layers of the Sun expand, they will radiate more heat towards Earth, eventually baking the planet so that no life can survive. This will happen in about 1.1 billion years. The Sun will literally swell until it takes up the entire sky. All life will be extinct by this point and water will vaporize and probably be lost into space with much of the atmosphere. Earth will become a molten ball of rock as it was when it originally formed.
The good news is that this transition is at least 1.5 billion years away.
At about 7 billion years, the Earth will actually orbit within the outer layers of the Sun's bloated surface.
Following that change, the Sun will cast off its outer layers into space leaving a condensed core behind that will eventually burn out. What was once Earth will be left as a ball of frozen rock, floating silently through space until some other unforeseen cosmic cataclysm destroys it.
Humans will be long-extinct, or perhaps, if we are successful, long living on other worlds. That future however, is so remote that it is literally impossible to even speculate what will be. Of course, the most likely scenario is extinction, but there is a basis optimism, for our species is curious and bright and motivated to survive.
However, humanity shouldn't be so complacent as if the clocks will tick forever. There are plenty of other more immediate threats to our species. Astronomers widely believe that comets and asteroids continue to pose a real threat to the planet and a single impact could destroy civilization as we know it. We do not yet have the guaranteed means to detect and protect against the imminent threat cosmic impact, regardless of what Hollywood claims.
There are also risks associated with other natural phenomenon such as volcanic activity, the drift of continents and changes in weather patterns. In about 250 million years, the continents of the planet are predicted to drift back together to form another supercontinent.
What we imagine as permanent is quite temporary on a cosmic scale.
Even more immediate than supercontinents are dangers we create for ourselves. Global climate change, human induced or not, is still a significant threat to humanity whether it gets hotter or colder. The pollution of the environment, the extinction f keystone species, and the development and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction are all risk factors to humanity.
In short, we are doomed by nature, if we do not destroy ourselves first and do not find a way to safely sail to the stars.
The good news is that for us living today, the odds of natural cataclysm within our lifetime are miniscule. More likely is that we will destroy ourselves by some foolish means, but in that case we have the power to careen into oblivion, or to deftly avoid disaster by means of peace and responsible stewardship of our planet.
Beyond that, we must leave it to God to handle the rest.
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Pope Francis Prayer Intentions for December 2013
General Intention: Victimized Children. That children who are victims of abandonment or violence may find the love and protection they need.
Missionary Intention: Prepare the Savior's Coming. That Christians, enlightened by the Word incarnate, may prepare humanity for the Savior's coming.
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