It was fun while it lasted, but it seems the world is ending. A growing clamor, based on the Mayan calendar, insists that Dec. 21, 2012, marks the death of humanity. Even NASA has received thousands of terrified messages from the public.
But the calendar has been misinterpreted, say the experts, who claim the doomsday refers only to the end of a cycle. The Mayan calendar is split into 394-year "baktuns," and 2013 will see a new era.
"The 13th Baktun will end on Dec. 21, and another will start," says Ines Valera-Silva, a researcher in Mayan studies at Loughborough University, U.K.. "That's all. A catastrophe has never been predicted."
Mayans today have stopped using the old calendar, adds Valera-Silva, who finds the panic strange. "There is no reason to interpret this as a prophecy, but obviously some people are excited by it."
Hollywood movies and social media have driven the debate on exactly how the world will end. One Facebook page with 13,000 fans suggests it will come from a space object, but we checked with scientists to get a better idea.
"The biggest threat is a comet impact," says Benny Peiser, catastrophe specialist and founder of climate policy network CCNet. "It happens every few million years and could happen at any time. Astronomers are scanning the sky for potential risk, and we need to solve the problem for good by developing the technology to deflect asteroids."
More Mayan interpreters believe that a black hole will open in 2012 and swallow us all. The fear led to widespread criticism of scientists working on the Large Hadron Collider, reportedly capable of producing a black hole.
We may not need cosmic forces to summon armageddon. The number of nuclear nations has grown swiftly and with it, the risk of a "final war."
"It's no secret how to make the weapons, and it's not hard to think of people crazy enough to use them," says Alan Robock, environmental scientist at Rutgers University and author of "Nuclear Winter Revisited." Besides the threat of terrorists, Robock sees a risk in regional feuds between nuclear powers India and Pakistan, or Israel and Iran.
The endless possibilities explain the interest in bookmaker William Hill's offer of 1,000,000 to 1 on the world ending. "Some may say it is a bet we can never lose, for the obvious reason that we won't be here to pay out should it happen," spokesman Graham Sharpe says -- but several bets already have been placed.
Comet strike: Still the most immediate threat and likely to be sudden. Fear factor: 7/10
Nuclear war: Growing with proliferation and probably more likely than world peace. FF: 6/10
Global warming: Rising sea levels already threatening islands in the Pacific, but a slow burner. FF: 4/10
Disease pandemic: Disease watchdogs say it could happen, but is unlikely to catch us by surprise. FF: 2/10
Sun burnout: A sure thing, but will be in 4.5 billion years’ time. FF: 0/10