Civilization exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice.
– American author, historian and philosopher Will Durant
We humans seem to be predisposed to think and worry about the end of the world. Since ancient times self-proclaimed prophets see the signs and even today supposed end-time-coming-this-year prophecies are shared on social networks. Indeed fifty years ago a worldwide nuclear war seemed almost inevitable. Twenty years ago Hollywood popularized the possible end of humankind by a meteorite impact as seen in “Armageddon” and “Deep Impact”. Large impacts are rare but possible disasters, as the famous Tunguska event in 1908 shows. Nowadays, apart from natural disasters like a volcanic eruption, we fear our own creations. Artificial intelligence could one day replace real humans and anthropogenic climate change is harming the environment already at an unprecedented rate.
In 2005 American biologist and author Jared Diamond, based on his research on past civilizations, proposed a combination of factors to explain the collapse of former societies. Apart from environmental factors, like climate or natural disasters, also cultural factors, like overpopulation, over-exploitation of natural resources, war and a society’s response to such problems, explain if a society fails or succeeds.
The new Netflix action thriller film “How it Ends” (spoilers ahead) imagines how a sudden collapse could occur in the modern US. The successful young lawyer Will (played by British actor Theo James) and his estranged father-in-law Tom (played by American actor, producer, and director Forest Steven Whitaker), ex-marine now technical consultant, flee from Chicago after precursory geological activity is noted. Tremblings of the earth are followed by power failures in all larger cities of the west coast. All communication breaks down as electronic devices stop working. Authorities are unwilling or not able to explain what is happening and panic spreads quickly. Strange storms in the Pacific force a general air traffic shutdown and traffic jams in the streets make it almost impossible to leave the city. Trying to find Will’s pregnant wife, traveling across a chaotic and fractured country to Seattle, the two men survive more unexplained natural disasters.
In “How it Ends” the mysterious apocalypse is never fully explained and for the plot, exploring human relationships when faced with a difficult decision, “in the end it really doesn’t matter.” Just for the sake of argument (and fun) let us explore the possible science behind the fiction. As most communications are down we can rely only on the sparse information gathered by our protagonists. A seismic event near the coast of California is briefly mentioned. Apparently, most electronic devices don’t work, animals behave strangely and unusual storm-clouds cover the sky. Geomagnetic interference seems to disrupt both communications as confuse the magnetic sense of animals. Finally, our protagonists venture into a desolated city, covered in dust and ash. In one of the last scenes, we see Will fleeing in a car from a huge pyroclastic flow. The sparse clues we find could suggest that some of the observed events are connected to a volcanic eruption. Famously the US west coast hosts two supervolcanoes, the Long Valley caldera in California and Yellowstone in Wyoming. Supervolcanoes are considered one of the five biggest threats to humankind, along with asteroids, nuclear war, disease and global warming. Yellowstone was the world’s first National Park and is a geological marvel with the greatest concentration of geysers in the world. The geothermal activity found here is feed by the Yellowstone hotspot, a large blob of hot material rising up in earth’s mantle and feeding a magma chamber located six miles below ground. The volcanic activity of the Long Valley caldera is related to the Cascadian Subduction Zone, where oceanic crust is sliding underneath the American continent. As the subducted crust melts, the magma feeds the explosive volcanism typical for the volcanoes of the Pacific Northwest. A supereruption would release 3,000 times the energy of Mount St. Helens. The eruption of a supervolcano would trigger strong earthquakes, felt as far as some hundred miles, and cause strong ash-fall. The earthquakes would do the most damage to modern infrastructure, disrupting traffic and supply lines. Air traffic would become impossible as volcanic ash is abrasive enough to damage even modern airplane’s engines. Poorly studied, as there are no real precedents, is the impact of a supereruption on modern communications. Ash particles can become electrically charged during an eruption. Dispersed into earth’s atmosphere the particles can disturb satellite and radio signals and so limit both global as local communications.
Considering such a hypothetical scenario, it is important to note that the eruption of a supervolcano is not only very unlikely at this time, but precursory geological activity (like tremors) would happen months, even years, before any visible volcanic activity would be noted. In “How It Ends” the speed of such a catastrophe is greatly exaggerated. In just seven days the protagonists experience what in reality would need weeks or even years to unfold. Would a society, like the modern US, really collapse so fast? It’s hard to say, as we don’t know the exact extent of the catastrophe. It is also unlikely that total anarchy would prevail. Despite the tropes seen so often in end times movies, during difficult times cooperation is actually the best strategy.