Mayan Apocalypse? Perhaps Not, But Disasters On The Rise.


What if one day you were told that the world as we know it, would soon come to an end? All those exams, papers, and all nighters were a complete waste because you will not have time to graduate. All the interviews, cover letters and info sessions you had to go to…they were pointless. What if you were told that on December 21, 2012, the world was going to end?

According to the ancient Mayan Long Count Calender, a cycle of more than 5,000 years will come to an end at the start of the winter solstice of 2012. This day, December 21st of 2012, marks the last of the 144,00-day cycles known as bak’tuns. Familiar among practicing Maya and participants in the New Age movement, it is believed that this date will bring an apocalyptic global transformation.

While most of us expect to wake up on December 22, 2012 and find the world the same as it was on December 21, one aspect of this Mayan calender story actually requires serious attention. One of the predictions is the increase in natural disasters, the implictions of which we have seen first-hand over the last 30 years. The increase in natural disasters may signal fundamental shifts in the earth’s climate and could significantly alter life on earth.

According to data from the Red Cross, United Nations and researchers around the world, it is estimated that the number of natural disasters has increased by more than four-times over the past 30 years. In a survey done earlier this year, 700 natural disasters were registered worldwide in the past two years alone. These events affected more than 450 million people and have caused $100 billion in damages per year between 2000 and 2012. These numbers compare to a strikingly lower, $20 billion per year in damages evaluation, in the 1990s.

But what is the cause of this dramatic rise in disasters? Climate change, global warming and natural cycles such as the El Nino or La Nina phenomena are believed to be linked to the increased severe weather conditions. There is significant evidence to show that the global climate is already changing, and will continue to change over coming decades and centuries. Global sea level rose about 17 centimeters in the last century; this rate is nearly double that of last century. Global temperature has risen since the 1970s, with the warmest 20 years having occurred since 1981, and all of the 10 warmest years occurring in the past 12 years. Other compelling evidence is seen in shrinking ice sheets, declining Arctic sea ice, glacier retreat and ocean acidification (If you want more information on climate change facts see

With these dramatic changes occurring, is there anything we can do at this point to save our fate of the December 21st dooms day? The fact is, we need to focus our effort and attention on global warming and climate change. The United States can no longer delay the adoption of effective policies to limit emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs). Carbon dioxide and other GHG emmissions are contributing to the overall climate change around the world. We have three options we can consider: mitigation, adaptation and “business as usual”. Mitigation would reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases while adaptation would deal with the consequences of climate change and global warming (including natural disaster occurences). Our final option, “business as usual” would consist of doing nothing, and continuing to live with the increase in GHG emmissions. This would save costs of mitigation today, but would make adaptation costs much higher in the future.

We are already seeing a few changes around the world as people become aware of the increasing impacts of climate change. The increase in natural disasters has created an awareness and a sense of adaptation throughout the globe. Farmers have began to explore drought-risistent plants, families are relocating to safer locations as sea levels rise, and insurance companies are adjusting rates due to predictions of future climate changes. Mitigation is also occurring on the personal, local and global levels. People are attempting to lower individual footprints. Cities are committing to lower GHG emmissions, and countries are researching alternative energy sources to lower pollution.

However with all these efforts at hand, it is important to note that any changes we make now will not yield immediete results. If the world as we know it is going to be sustained, changes do need to be made, and they need to happen now. I do plan on waking up December 22nd and finding my world to be the same as it was on December 21st, however this may not stand true forever. The Mayan’s may have predicted the wrong date; however, with the increasing natural disasters and climate changes, their predictions do not seem as crazy as I once thought.






  1. I think this was a good overview of the dangers that we are beginning to face largely because of climate change and other results of humans being environmentally ignorant and/or just irresponsible. Part of the biggest struggle for environmentalists today is overcoming the stigma that all of us are tree hugging extremists. It definitely helps (in a horrible way) to have highly visible and damage-inducing events like these (focusing events, if you will) that will hopefully trigger a response from average Americans. To do this, it’s imperative that we begin to make connections (loudly and publicly, but in a professional and scientific manner) between these disasters and our environmental impact. Posts like this that get the shocking numbers out there are important- I read that statistic about the rise in natural disasters over the past 30 years to my friends and they were definitely impressed by the magnitude. Coincidentally, I recently saw this cool infographic done by UCS that relates nicely to your post:


  2. This topic is especially relevant in the wake of Hurricane Sandy’s devastation, from which many of my family members and neighbors are still recovering. The storm, which was dubbed “The Perfect Storm”, has stirred up quite the frenzy in the meteorological community, and it should come as no surprise that talks of global warming surround this focusing event. Just today, the National Weather Service updated its hurricane warning procedures as a result of Sandy, and I am quite sure that this is just a glimpse of what we can expect following future storms.

    While there is certainly contention as to whether or not human-induced climate change worsened the effects of Hurricane Sandy, I think your post makes it clear that the weather is having an increasing effect on the world’s population. As a weather nerd, I can’t help but get excited about freak weather events, but I also recognize how important it is that we find ways to protect people from nature’s fury. While it’s important that we find ways to combat global warming and climate change, I think we need to recognize that freak weather events will continue to be a bigger and bigger part of the global landscape. We need to consider other techniques to mitigate their effects, either via novel geo-engineering techniques, or by safe-proofing our built environment. I am hopeful that we will find ways to coexist with nature and will be able to weather through these inevitable storms.

  3. Michaela Foster

    December 6, 2012 at 8:54 pm

    This article addresses two important points: (1) more extreme and frequent weather events are happening now and will continuing happening until (2) changes we make now begin taking affect in the future. Natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy as Kerri mentioned are happening in faster succession to one another and are causing increasing amounts of damage. Yet, skeptics continue to deny that our climate is changing. Even worse, we fail to change our behavior and continue using fossil fuels like there’s no tomorrow. Technology exists to lower our country’s overall emissions; however, it is not widely used. There is lots of talk about how what we do now has an effect on the future, yet we live as if it doesn’t. What will it take for us to make changes, and major changes at that, to reduce fossil fuel emissions when the benefits won’t be received for some time? Capturing what makes people alter their behavior without an immediate reward or punishment will be key in getting people to reduce their contribution to global warming and to live a more sustainable lifestyle in the present.

  4. This was timely considering Hurricane Sandy just barreled through the east coast. Natural disasters are definitely one issue that we as Americans at least do not devote enough attention—and frankly respect—to. I think that there is a false notion that humans have the ability to engineer our way out of any and every problem. This kind of thinking is not without cause. Look at prosthetics, reconstructive surgery, drought-resistant plants, nutrient-enriched produce, and earthquake-resilient buildings just to name a few. Despite all of our fancy toys, earthquakes still manage to tear down buildings, wildfires run rampant in California, and hurricanes dance through our rendering us powerless. I know for a fact that right now someone somewhere is considering a way to stop a hurricane by producing a counter acting force to reduce the wind speeds or dry out a hurricane. (Confession: I don’t actually know, but I can imagine someone has spent significant time researching different possibilities.) There is nothing that we can do to stop natural disasters. Of our choices, prevention is definitely the best route. The problem, as you pointed out, is that the necessity of changing our behavior is not obvious until after natural disasters strike. By that time and energy is focused on reconstruction and prevention is left to the wayside.

  5. As a native Floridian I have noticed that it seems like hurricanes are acting with more irregularity and occurring with greater frequency. The cost of preparing for natural disasters and recovery could be a significant burden on future generations that could experience natural weather disasters as a result of climate change. As an individual it may seem daunting to convince a world that seems bent on continuing with business as usual. However, as many students of the environment may know, the one of the best things an individual can do to decrease their energy and carbon footprint is to eat less pork, and gets even better if meat consumption is reduced even further. Kerri posted a related article on vegetarianism and sustainability in the latest blog update. One day, hopefully, history will view sustainability life choices like these as prudent and vital for the continuation of any business at all in a habitable world.

    And as an aside, the Mayan Long Count calendar does end on December 21st, but then another begins. The idea of the end of the world at the end of the calendar was not prophesized by the Mayan priests; rather it is a misinterpretation of the end of a cycle by those unfamiliar with Mayan culture, particularly the poetry of dualities revered by their religion. Yes, the end of this 5,125 year cycle marks the coming of Bolon Yokte Kuh, diety or dieties of the underworld, but that marks a change that doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the world. If you don’t believe me, ask Dr. Mignolo at Duke.

  6. Our response to global climate change is undoubtedly the issue that will define our generation. If we fail to rise to the challenge, the Mayan prediction of the impending end of the world may indeed come to fruition. The central challenge of confronting global climate change is implicated in its very name; climate change, and its negative effects, is a global issue. The unilateral actions of any single nation will not significantly nor satisfactorily mitigate sea level rise, temperature changes or any of the other effects that Caroline mentioned. To save the planet, everyone on the planet needs to get on board. International negotiations and climate conventions have thus far proven to be very ineffectual. It seems to me that the lack of recognition of climate change as a problem is a serious contributing factor to this impotence. As terrible as natural disaster are, maybe more Mayan level disasters will be the impetus for substantive action on an international level.

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