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12 Ways the World Could End, According to Oxford University

Mar 31, 2015 09:39 AM EDT

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No, this is not a list of endings to Hollywood's latest blockbusters. These are potentially real-life scenarios that could devastate and even end human civilization as we know it.

Compiled by University of Oxford's Future of Humanity Institute and the Global Challenges Foundation, the report titled "12 Risks that Threaten Human Civilization" lists the most likely ways that apocalypse could occur.

"The idea that we face a number of global risks threatening the very basis of our civilization at the beginning of the 21st century is well accepted in the scientific community and is studied at a number of leading universities," the authors state in the assessment.

Far from being alarmist, however, the report's authors say they don't mean to cause panic, but rather find ways to turn challenges into opportunities.

"It is a scientific assessment about the possibility of oblivion, certainly, but even more it is a call for action based on the assumption that humanity is able to rise to challenges and turn them into opportunities," write the authors.

Here are the 12 most likely ways the world could end, according to their assessment:

1.       Extreme climate change

The report warns that if no action is taken on climate change, then global warming could cause devastation that might be worse than what is predicted by today's middle estimates. Poorer countries would be the most affected by global warming, some of them possibly becoming completely uninhabitable. Leading to mass deaths, famines, social collapse and mass migration, this scenario could certainly lead to civilization collapse, states the report.

2.       Nuclear War

Although the report's authors believe that the possibility of nuclear war is lower now than it was during the Cold War, they believe that if there is conflict, something called a nuclear winter could occur. This is when the creation of a pall of smoke high in the stratosphere causes temperatures to plunge below freezing and destroy most of the ozone layer. As a result, the collapse of the global food supply would lead to mass starvation.

3.       Global pandemic

The study's authors believe this is one of the more probable scenarios because the features of an extremely devastating disease already exist in nature: incurable (Ebola), fatal (rabies), extremely infectious (common cold), and with long incubation periods (HIV). If a pathogen that combined all these features appeared, its death toll would be extreme.

4.       Ecological collapse

Although this is a preventable risk, the study states that is the current historic rates of species extinction continue to rise, human civilization is potentially at risk because humans are part of the global ecosystem and fundamentally dependent on it.

5.       Global system collapse

The world's economic and political system is so interconnected and complex that unexpected system-wide failures might lead to economic collapse, social chaos and breakdown in law and order.

6.       Major asteroid impact

This is probably one of the best understood of all the risks in this report. Scientists believe that a land impact from an asteroid could cause extinction-level events caused by the clouds of dust that would damage the biosphere.

7.       Super-volcano

A volcano eruption thousands of times larger than a normal eruption could release dust into the upper atmosphere, which would absorb the sun's rays and lead to a global volcanic winter.

8.       Synthetic biology

One of the most troubling scenarios is the possibility of an engineered pathogen designed to target humans. Either through biowarfare or bioterrorism, this could lead to disastrous consequences for the human race.

9.       Nanotechnology

"[Nanotechnology] could lead to the easy construction of large arsenals of conventional or more novel weapons made possible by atomically precise manufacturing," they warn. "Of particular relevance is whether nanotechnology allows the construction of nuclear bombs."

10.   Artificial intelligence

The report states that machines may develop extreme levels of intelligence and be driven to construct a world without humans. It also posits, however, that in an alternate scenario, they could provide solutions to the previous risks presented.

11.   Future bad global governance

Global leaders could exacerbate existent problems with bad decisions. "There are two main divisions in governance disasters: failing to solve major solvable problems, and actively causing worse outcomes," the study explains.

12.   Unknown consequences

Finally, the researchers believe there are "unknown unknowns" and call for "extensive research" into "unknown risks and their probabilities." 

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