Help! I’m Having a HAARP Attack! (Pt. I)

It’s been called the “Moby Dick of conspiracy theories”[1]. It’s been attached to some of the most advanced research groups in the United States military, including the Naval Research Laboratory and the clandestine Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). And, depending on who you ask, this secluded, $250 million facility north of Gakona, Alaska may be implicated in some of the most devastating natural disasters of our time, including the 2011 Tōhoku Earthquake and Tsunami, the 2010 Haiti Earthquake, and the April 2011 Tornado ‘Superoutbreak’. So, what exactly is this alleged superweapon?

According to its website at the University of Alaska, The High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program, or HAARP, was established in 1993 as “a program focused on the study of upper atmospheric and solar-terrestrial physics and Radio Science.”[2] The HAARP facility consists of a number of research instruments including receivers, magnetometers, riometers, radars, and other tools. The primary instrument in use by HAARP, however, is a 180-antenna gridded array spanning 33 acres, known as the ‘Ionosphere Research Instrument’ (IRI), which is used to “stimulate small, well-defined volumes of ionosphere.” The stated goal of these instruments is to study the behavior and composition of a layer of the Earth’s atmosphere called the Ionosphere. The Ionosphere is a region of the atmosphere, about 50 miles above the surface, in which the Sun’s solar radiation strikes atoms of various atmospheric gases and causes them to produce both a free electron and a positively charged ion. Where this happens, the atmosphere begins to behave less like a gas and more like a plasma. The altered behavior of these regions allows us to use long distance, high frequency communications systems, among other things, by bouncing signals off the Ionosphere through a process called sky-wave propagation.

The purported goal of HAARP is to study this region of the atmosphere in order to better understand and improve on various technologies that use the Ionosphere, from transoceanic aircraft and ship-to-shore communications, to military communication systems, to GPS navigation and surveillance applications. This research is done by transmitting a narrow band of intense radio signals into specific, localized areas of the Ionosphere. So.. what’s the big deal? Well, let’s run through some of the more sinister applications HAARP has allegedly been involved in. But, before we begin, let me make a disclaimer. I’m not an expert. Not in anything. And I don’t have a degree or any other qualifications that I can use to present myself as such. I don’t have any authority, and I have no interest in pretending otherwise. What I do have is an intense curiosity in nearly everything, a penchant for critical thinking and rational analysis, a passion for meteorology, and a desire to give every idea the most equal and thorough evaluation that my understanding and ability permits. So, without further ado, on to the claims.


There’s a Storm A-Brewin’

     The first claim we’ll be evaluating is that of weather modification. On the surface, this certainly seems to be a reasonable possibility. After all, HAARP is transmitting radio signals into the atmosphere, with one of the goals being a rapid heating of a volume of gas. Since weather is largely fueled by temperature differences in the atmosphere, it sounds plausible that this would affect our surface weather. In fact, several people claim to have found proof of this weather modification technology in the form of strange shapes and designs on weather radar. These shapes come in two flavors, so-called ‘HAARP rings’ and ‘scalar squares’. Let’s take a look at one of the more outspoken proponents of these phenomena, a Youtube user named “Dutchsinse”. Below is a video from April 27, 2011, the most active day of the late April Superoutbreak.



In this video you can see both ‘HAARP rings’ and ‘scalar squares’, and the role they are claimed to play in forecasting severe weather. By clicking here you can see a summary of confirmed tornadoes on April 27. And, sure enough, many of the general areas pointed to in the video (though few of the specific towns) did experience tornadoes. It certainly sounds impressive. Impressive enough, in fact, that it’s easy to see why some people would view this as proof of HAARP’s ability to modify weather. But, we’re not going to take things at face value. Instead, we’re going to examine whether there could be any other explanation for the various occurrences in this video and others like it.

Let’s start with the most basic question – is there any other reason this person would have cause to suspect severe weather in the aforementioned areas? Well.. yes, actually. I’d been expecting a large and dangerous tornado outbreak across the southeast for several days prior to the event, and I was certainly not alone. Any meteorologists or weather enthusiast, professional or otherwise, who had been paying attention to the developing situation across the south could have (and did) forecast the same thing. The Storm Prediction Center (SPC) had issued a large area of high and moderate risk, including a very rare 45% tornado probability for a large area on April 27. Every ingredient necessary for an historic outbreak was present.[3] Many people knew that the situation in the south was going to be bad, it was simply a question of just how bad.

Let’s also not lose sight of the fact that this was a massive, extended outbreak. An historically massive outbreak, in fact. It’s not as if these tornadoes suddenly developed out of a clear blue sky, by the time the April 27 video was made this intense weather system had already left a legacy of destruction across the south and midwest. With a total of 336 confirmed tornadoes, you could have simply named any town in Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, or several other states and chances are fair that a tornado occurred somewhere in that general area. Between the massive CAPE levels (a measure of the amount of energy available for severe weather), very high low-level and deep-layer wind shear (variation in wind direction and speed with height, which causes rotation in the atmosphere), a deep moisture feed, and other factors, a devastating tornado outbreak was all but assured. In fact, if it weren’t for the very early warnings, it’s possible the death toll could have been even higher than it was.[4] For anyone interested, here are a couple more excellent links explaining the extraordinary synoptic setup that led to the April Superoutbreak.

Synoptic Overview

Wikipedia Meteorological Summary

Okay, so the tornado outbreak was pretty common knowledge for anyone with even a passing interest in meteorology. But what about the strange patterns themselves? Certainly such bizarre occurrences can’t be explained by traditional means, so they must represent the fingerprints of HAARP’s weather modification. Well.. once again, we need to slow down a little bit. These are certainly odd patterns and shapes, and they deserve a closer look. Let’s see a couple of other examples of these and other similar things on radar in an attempt to figure out exactly what we’re dealing with here.


For convenience, I recommend opening these images in a different tab or window either by clicking with your scroll wheel, or right clicking and ‘open in new tab/window’.


The image on the left is a radar composite of the continental United States, showing what appears to be a large number of these HAARP rings. The center image is a single radar from Minneapolis, showing several distinctly circular patterns as well as a couple of straight lines. The right image shows a very clearly defined straight line on a radar from Hong Kong. Since the last image is already labeled, let’s start there. The straight line is the result of sunlight interacting with the radar waves and producing a false echo. That’s right, sunlight can sometimes cause issues with radar, which gives some indication as to how error-prone they can sometimes be. But, before we go further, let’s quickly explore exactly what radar is and how it works.

Radar works by sending out a pulse of radar waves in a circular sweep pattern (keep this in mind, it’ll be important in a minute) and recording the ‘echo’ that it receives back, as well as the strength of the return. These ‘echoes’ are intended to reflect where precipitation is located in the atmosphere, thus allowing us to visually track and analyze weather systems. At least, that’s the way it’s intended to work. In reality, it’s not quite so simple. Our radar technology has advanced immensely in recent years, but a number of problems still remain. Any number of non-weather related things can cause false returns, most notably ground clutter, flocks of birds, insect swarms, chaff (material designed to distort radar returns) dropped from military planes, bats, dense fog, and yes, sunlight. Anomalous propagation and false echoes like these are responsible for nearly all misidentified anomalies and phenomena on radar. Most radars now have computer algorithms that detect and remove much of this detritus, but not all. And since radars depend on computers for such things now, they’re also prone to data errors, rendering errors, and other computer glitches. Plus, if things weren’t already confusing enough, you must also consider that each radar scan is done at a specific angle, giving a thin ‘slice’ of the atmosphere at a certain elevation. Most radar images show only one ‘slice’ at a time, but some (called ‘composite radar’) show all the slices blended together. Add all this together and it becomes clear that radar is certainly not as simple as ‘what you see is what you get’.[5]

So, back to the pictures above. Recall that the first picture showed what appeared to be a great number of HAARP rings. It’s certainly spooky looking to the average person, but anyone with the ability to decipher radar scans can immediately tell you these signals are caused by dense fog. Because fog is essentially a cloud on or near the ground, if dense enough it can cause a return similar to a weak cloud. This also explains the widespread nature of these patterns, since it happened very early in the morning when fog is most prevalent and widespread. If you find the center of each ring, you can also see these aren’t at all random. Actually, at the center of each ring is a radar station.[6] The reason for the circular pattern is even more evident in the second image, which clearly displays the circular sweep pattern that radar stations use to scan the surrounding atmosphere. In the northeast quadrant, the boundary between red-orange and purple illustrates the normal scanning range of the radar station, beyond which echo returns tend to become distorted and more circular or arc-shaped.

In the April 27 video, however, these rings are not caused by fog. There are other issues, however. First, the radar being used is the ‘Intellicast’ radar, which you can find right here. Remember I mentioned that not all radar programs are equal? This is a fine example. While the Intellicast radar may be fine for giving a general approximation of where weather systems are, what type of precipitation is falling, and other general uses, it is also rife with problems. First, the resolution (meaning, the amount of detail it can pick up) is lower than the high precision radars generally used in weather forecasting. Second, the algorithms used to ‘declutter’ all of the false echoes we looked at earlier are poor compared to high quality radar programs. And third, this type of radar display is notorious for rendering errors which routinely cause all manner of odd shapes, patterns and assorted anomalies. Combine these factors together, and you’ve got the reason why Intellicast is so often used in conjunction with this theory – it’s more prone to these sorts of errors than higher quality radars and will therefore show these rings and other anomalies more often. And finally, the radar shown in the video is a composite radar, meaning that it is a collection of scans from all the individual radar stations combined into one radar. This is the reason that rings can so often be seen, oftentimes intersecting and overlapping each other. Each ring is simply an artifact which appears at the outermost extent of the scanning range for a given radar. When several of these radars are in close proximity, you can sometimes see several of these ‘range rings’ intersecting.

In the interest of time, I’ll provide a few links that explain the multiple causes of this ‘HAARP ring’ phenomenon in much more depth. I’d encourage everyone to check out at least a couple of them for a better understanding of how it works.

Anomalous Propagation and False Echoes

Concentric Radar Rings – A Case Study

An Evaluation of ‘Anomalous’ Radar Images

Radar Ducting

So, as you can hopefully see after digging around a bit, these phenomena are simply the result of misidentification of radar quirks that are well-known throughout the meteorological community. That these entirely innocuous patterns are being touted by some as harbingers of death and destruction wrought by a mysterious government superweapon ought to reveal something about the trustworthiness of such individuals. But, in the interest of being thorough I will follow this post with a second part outlining and discussing several other claims made about HAARP. In the meantime, I’d like to encourage you to please evaluate these claims for yourself. Keep an open mind, but also dig deeply, think critically, and look past tactics of persuasion and false authority in order to arrive at the truth. The desire to believe that there’s something more to reality other than what we see and what we’re told resides within all of us. It should never be extinguished, but it also should never be followed blindly. Follow your instincts, explore every dark corner, but let discernment and critical thinking be your light.

Advertisements

Space Invaders!

It’s pretty typical sci-fi fodder, the sort of thing you can expect to see at least once or twice every summer at a theater near you – city-sized spaceships, little gray humanoids with oversized bobbleheads and freakishly long fingers, vaporizing laser weapons and warp drives. To an outsider, it would appear as though we’ve taken for granted not only the existence of extraterrestrial life, but also their vastly superior technology and ability to planet-hop with ease. But are any of these assumptions founded on anything other than the entrenched popular image of 1950’s era Roswellian invaders from a far-off galaxy? Are we the gullible subject of our own collective imagination, or the victim of the single largest global conspiracy in human history?

Before we begin, it’s worth noting a couple of things. First, it’s impossible to prove a negative. In other words, ‘The Earth has absolutely never been visited by extraterrestrial life’, regardless of any evidence used to back it up, is simply not a valid statement. Nor is saying, for example, that Bigfoot absolutely, categorically does not exist. There’s just no way to conclusively prove a negative. The best that we can do is review all of the evidence and assess the probability given what we currently know. We must also keep in mind that the universe is an unimaginably huge place, perhaps even infinite, and when an infinite quantity of anything is inserted into the equation, things start to get a bit wonky. There is one thing that helps us in this regard, however – so far as we know, the physical laws of the universe are exactly the same no matter where you find yourself in the universe. The strength of gravity, the laws of thermodynamics, the speed of light and other core principles do not change whether you’re standing on the third rock from the sun or floating carelessly through interstellar space somewhere in the incredibly distant galaxy UDFy-38135539. That any potential life would have to grapple with precisely the same laws as we do gives us some level of confidence in making predictions, since we’re on something of a level playing field.

So, in the words of The King from Alice In Wonderland, let’s begin at the beginning. In the interest of thoroughness, let’s dissect exactly what it is we’re exploring here. In order for extraterrestrials to visit Earth, there are a number of things that must be assumed. First, we must assume that there even is life elsewhere in the universe. Second, we assume that there must be intelligent, technologically advanced life. Third, we assume that said technologically advanced life possesses the capability of traveling across interstellar (and potentially intergalactic) space. Fourth, we must assume that they decide upon Earth as an appropriate destination. And finally, we assume that, out of all the tens of billions of years the universe has been around, all of this is happening at precisely the same time as our civilization. So, first things first..

Are we alone?

The universe is kinda big. So big, in fact, that I’ve given up my futile search for adjectives that are up to the task of describing it. The universe, 1; the English language, 0. So, since words fail to give us any meaningful level of comprehension, we’re gonna Olivia Newton-John this thing; let’s get physical visual. Let’s imagine the entire Earth is shrunk down to the size of an ordinary grain of sand. On this scale, the visible universe would be similar in size to our entire solar system. Not only that, but there would still be more stars in the universe than grains of sand on all the beaches on the Earth. In fact, it’s estimated that for every grain of sand on Earth, there are as many as 100 stars in the visible universe! It boggles the mind to even think on such a scale, but ultimately the point is this – the universe is a really, very, incredibly, ridiculously humongously gigantic place.

That’s fine, but ultimately it tells us nothing about the likelihood of life. So the next question is, what are the conditions necessary for life, and how rare (or common) are they in said really, very, incredibly, ridiculously humongously gigantic universe? A seemingly simple question, but again we run into a problem. This time, it’s the problem of limited sample size. At the moment, we only have one measly example of life – the Earth. For all it’s breathtaking beauty and diversity, life on Earth is still just one sample; all based on the same fundamental constituents, all following the same general rules, all subject to the same process of evolution, descended from one (or at least very few) common ancestor. So, once again, the best that we can do is study the example that we have and try to make the best predictions possible given what we know.

What we know, at least on Earth, is that life requires a planet with a fairly specific set of conditions; liquid water, an energy source (sunlight or chemical energy), tolerable temperatures, and protection from ultraviolet solar radiation and other destructive phenomena. Collectively, these conditions are found in what’s called the ‘habitable’, or ‘Goldilocks’ zone – a fairly narrow band of space around any given star in which the temperatures are not too high, not too low, and the conditions could potentially be conducive to the development of life. Whether these same requirements can necessarily be extrapolated out throughout the universe can be debated, but again it’s the best we can do given current knowledge.

While we aren’t yet certain how common such habitable planets are, there is good news for those hoping we’re not alone. We have only surveyed an unimaginably small sliver of the universe, and yet we’ve already detected a number of planets that potentially lie within their star’s habitable zone. It’s therefore not unreasonable to assume that these Goldilocks planets may be relatively common. The question, of course, is whether, and how often, the spark of life arises on such planets. Since the Earth doesn’t appear to have any special qualities that any other rocky planet orbiting in a habitable zone couldn’t possess, there doesn’t seem to be any reason that life couldn’t arise on at least a fraction of these planets. In fact, scientists are currently investigating planets and moons in our own backyard (especially Mars, Jupiter’s moon Europa, and Saturn’s moons Enceladus and Titan.) And given the unimaginably huge number of planets in the universe, it seems prepostorous that each and every one of them would be devoid of life. In other words, while we currently have no way to positively detect it, it seems reasonable to assume that we are indeed not alone in the universe.

Next Stop: Earth?

Okay, so we’ve deduced that there probably is life scattered throughout the universe. But what kind of life? Pond scum? Little bunny rabbits? Infinitely intelligent superbeings capable of intergalactic travel? Well.. as is the case with most things space-related, we don’t know. It’s likely, probably certain, that we simply cannot imagine what life on other planets would be like. We know the sort of mechanisms that are likely to shape that life (natural selection, mutation, adaptation, genetic drift and so on) but we can’t know for sure the kind of selective pressures the environment would place on said life. In other words, we know that life will adapt and conform to the environment in which it lives, but we don’t have a good way of knowing what that environment actually is.

The best we can do, once again, is make educated guesses – we can be relatively sure that life elsewhere would probably have eyes, since light is a pretty essential ingredient for complex life. Ears would probably be common as well, since it is a major advantage to be able to hear either predators or prey. It’s a safe bet that any complex life would also have two, four, or some other even number of ‘legs’, or something that functions similarly to legs, because locomotion is most effective with a symmetrical body plan. We can also say with some degree of certainty that intelligent life, if there is any, would have some form of ‘hands’, or appendages with which they can manipulate the world around them. These sort of educated guesses give us only a vague, uncertain picture, but they do reinforce one thing – while it’s quite possible extraterrestrial life would be wildly different from our own (after all, just look at the stunning diversity of our own life), it’s reasonable to assume that it may at least possess somewhat recognizable features.

Unfortunately, we have no way of predicting the trait that matters most for our discussion – intelligence. We know that on Earth, intelligence is generally a very, very useful survival advantage. We also know, however, that humans are the only known species that truly has the intelligence to build and manipulate complex things, to control the environment, and to potentially travel in space. While this appears to hint at complex intelligence being somewhat rare, it certainly can’t be ruled out elsewhere in the universe. For the sake of our discussion, then, we must once again assume that this is possible. After all, given the staggering size of the universe, anything that can happen, will happen, and likely pretty often.

Alright, so intelligent life may be out there somewhere. It may even be all over the place, who knows? But what is this intelligent life up against should they decide to pay a visit to Earth? The first and most immediate difficulty is something that we humans have struggled with for nearly our entire existence – gravity. As easy as NASA and other space agencies make it look, overcoming the immense gravitational pull of Earth is pretty difficult. In fact, over 500,000 gallons of supercold liquid oxygen and hydrogen are needed just to blast a single space shuttle around 200-300 miles up into orbit. If you’ve ever seen a shuttle launch, you’ll notice that the gigantic orange fuel tank is significantly larger than the shuttle itself. And it’s quite possible that any would-be spacefaring nation would have to overcome a much larger gravitational pull, since the Earth is not an especially large planet.

But, again we can give the aliens a pass on that one. If humans can blast their way out of the Earth’s gravitational pull, let’s assume our space traveling friends can as well. The next problem is what to do once you’ve made it to space. The distances in space are so ridiculously huge that it’s difficult to imagine, and this presents potentially the single biggest problem for anyone hoping to pop in on a galactic neighbor. Even with all of our advances in technology and space travel, we still have yet to even make it to Mars, our next door neighbor. Think about that for a moment, we’ve never even come close to visiting the absolute closest visitable planet (Venus is too hellish to visit), essentially in our backyard. In fact, the furthest we have ever ventured is the moon, which is nearly 150 times closer than Mars (~238,000 miles vs. ~35,000,000!)

There are a few reasons for such limited space exploration, and they represent some serious hurdles for an extraterrestrial visitor to overcome as well. First, traveling on this scale requires reaching incredibly high velocity. A lower estimate for a reasonable velocity needed to travel to even nearby star systems is about 1% of the speed of light. Since the speed of light is 186,000 miles per second, this means in order to be even considered for interstellar flight a spacecraft would have to be capable of reaching at least 1,860 miles per second. Yeah, that’s miles per second. Kinda fast. And even that speed means it will take you at least 2600 years just to reach the nearest known potentially habitable planet. Or for a somewhat more reasonable time frame, you could build a spacecraft capable of moving at 10% the speed of light, or 18,600 miles/second. At that rate, it would only take a mere 260 years to travel the 26 light years. That’s a very long time, but it does still sound plausible.. at least until you look at the energy required to reach that speed. In order to bring a 2000 ton spacecraft (the size of the space shuttle) up to 10% the speed of light, you need to somehow generate at least 8.2^20 joules of energy. To put that in perspective, that’s twice the total yearly energy output of the entire Earth! Oh, and did I mention you’ll have to double that energy output in order to slow your spacecraft back down and reach your destination? So yeah, four times the total yearly energy of the entire Earth sounds manageable.. right?

But, of course, that’s not the only problem. The second is perhaps the more damning of the two – space isn’t empty. Supposing you could actually accelerate a spaceship to such seemingly impossible speeds, you’re not coasting carelessly through completely empty space. There are all manner of comets and meteors. There are gas and dust clouds. And there’s the fact that even space that IS ’empty’ isn’t actually empty – the interstellar medium, or the space between stars, is actually populated with a density of about 35 particles per cubic centimeter. What this means is that you’re essentially hurtling at impossibly high speed through a sandstorm of particles. This has the effect of punching holes, ripping chunks, peeling layers, and otherwise degrading any spaceship, regardless of construction methods or materials. And while ‘force fields’ and other science fiction solutions have been proposed, there remains a problem. Such technology would only have an effect on charged particles, and the most dangerous bits (small rocks, chunks of ice, and other assorted debris) are generally neutrally charged, meaning a so-called ‘force field’ would do precisely nothing to deter it. The fact that space isn’t actually empty also presents one more problem; drag. Once a certain velocity is attained, the drag of traveling through interstellar space alone puts a complete stop on acceleration, so that you simply cannot accelerate any faster no matter how much energy you can generate.

The Nail In The Coffin

Although there are additional factors that could be addressed in the previous section, there is one final, more practical discussion that effectively puts the nail in the coffin on this matter. Put very simply, why would extraterrestrials possibly behave in the way that so many believe they do? For example, why is the Earth such an (apparently) popular target? Given all of the seemingly insurmountable difficulties with space travel, why would any species invest so much to visit a planet inhabited by a species that has yet to even venture further than it’s own moon? What value could Earth possibly have to such advanced species? Surely any species capable of such incredible feats would have nothing to learn from such a trip.

Second, why the secrecy? What could be gained by skulking around largely unpopulated areas, abducting farmers and other mostly rural people, and attempting to remain undiscovered? Why would aliens not want to land in Times Square, or the White House lawn, or in downtown Beijing or Tokyo? It simply does not make rational sense, except to those who have already convinced themselves. Despite what Hollywood would have us believe, it’s unlikely that these visitors would be afraid of us. It’s obvious they would need to have unimaginably advanced technology and intellectual capacity, so why such odd behavior?

And finally, we come to UFO crashes. How likely is it that an extraterrestrial pilot would be able to launch successfully from their planet, navigate potentially billions or trillions of miles of treacherous space, navigate through the solar system and approach Earth without ever being detected by the miriad of observing telescopes and radars, slow to an appropriate speed to make it through the Earth’s atmosphere without burning up completely, and then promptly crash ineptly into the ground in some inconspicuous desert in New Mexico, or some rural forested area in Pennsylvania? Bit of a difficult situation to imagine.

Oh, and astute readers may notice that there’s one last point I raised but did not address; that of the government/science conspiracy. Apart from the fact that such conspiracies seem to be common among those who, for whatever reason, deny particular facts (see: Moon landings, 2012 apocalypse, 9/11, Pearl Harbor, and a cocophany of other such tales), there is also the fact that it simply does not make any sense. There is no plausible reason for the willful cooperation of all major governments and/or scientists in order to hide secrets about extraterrestrials. While it is unquestionable that governments do indeed hide secrets, it’s difficult to believe that a secret this big and far-reaching could be successfully held, especially not for so long.

As I stated much earlier, it’s impossible to prove a negative. With that in mind, I can’t say with certainty that extraterrestrials don’t exist, nor can I say that they have never visited the Earth. What I can say is that, as a rational person with at least a basic understanding of the physical laws that underpin the universe, there are simply too many extraordinary leaps of faith and baseless assumptions to conclude in any way that the Earth has been visited by aliens. I’m quite confident that there is indeed life elsewhere in the universe, and likely intelligent life as well. But intergalactic voyagers with an eye on Earth? Count me out

———-

And in the interest of being thorough, here are a couple of links detailing the difficulties of space travel. Remember, even those that are written about human space travel still apply to any extraterrestrial, since the laws of physics remain constant throughout the universe.

http://www.universetoday.com/17044/bad-news-insterstellar-travel-may-remain-in-science-fiction/

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2010/09/01/why-astronomers-dont-report-ufos/

A nice video explanation from noted astronomer Dr. Phil Plait:

And finally, perhaps my favorite quote on the subject:

“I think that it is much more likely that the reports of flying saucers are the result of the known irrational characteristics of terrestrial intelligence rather than the unknown rational efforts of extraterrestrial intelligence.”
– Dr. Richard Feynman

The 2012 Phenomenon

Reports of the apocalypse are greatly exaggerated, to paraphrase Mark Twain.

One would be hard-pressed to escape the madness of the “2012 Phenomenon”, the latest apocalyptic scenario to infiltrate pop culture. It’s made its way into the news cycle. It’s spawned an over-the-top action blockbuster. It’s part of ad campaigns. It’s the subject of magazine columns, blog posts, and practically everywhere else on the internet. It’s even being pushed on various Discovery & History Channel programs – because, let’s face it, if it’s on TV it’s gotta be true. So what exactly is all this commotion about, and is there anything to it?

The 2012 phenomenon has undergone several changes through the years, but several pieces remain the same. The whole story revolves around the Mayan Long Count calendar “ending” on December 21, 2012. That part, everyone in the 2012 movement agrees on. What they don’t agree on is what that actually means. The movement is basically divided into two groups – the “doomsday” group, and the “spiritual” group.

The doomsday group believes that the world will end on December 21, 2012. Some of these people posit that the Earth will collide with Nibiru, or “Planet X”, a planet that they believe orbits far out in the solar system. Others believe that the sun will enter a solar maximum near this date and send a violent solar storm to severely impact life on Earth. Still others believe that the Earth itself will be the problem, undergoing a massive pole shift that will destroy us. And then there are those who believe that the sun will align perfectly with the center of the Milky Way galaxy, causing a massive gravitational pull that will somehow, you guessed it, destroy life on Earth.

The spiritual group believes that this date represents a massive shift in consciousness, a spiritual transformation, a global enlightenment, or a new era. I’m not entirely sure what any of those things mean, but I don’t think any of the people who support these ideas do either, so I don’t feel so bad. The fact is, there’s really no way to prove a negative. So, I can’t prove that it won’t happen. I can appeal to common sense but, well, that doesn’t seem very promising. So with that in mind, I’ll ignore this group and deal only with the doomsday group for the purposes of this post.

So, the world is going to end in December 2012. At least, that’s what many people believe. Surely there must be something to it if so many people believe it… right? Well, let’s dig a little deeper into each claim made by 2012 doomsday supporters & see what we’ve got.

  • The Mayan Long Count calendar ends on December 21, 2012

Given that this is the basis for the whole story, I suppose this would be a good place to start. The Long Count calendar used by the Mayans is structured very differently from the calendar we’re familiar with, and is based on (roughly) units of 20. So, 20 days made a uinal, 18 uinals (360 days) made a tun, 20 tuns made a k’atun, and 20 k’atuns (144,000 days) made up a b’ak’tun. Under this calendar, we would currently be in the 13th b’ak’tun. This b’ak’tun comes to an end on December 21, 2012 (although we aren’t even entirely sure of that – it could also be December 23). This is what most people misinterpret as the “end” of the calendar. It’s not. It’s simply the end of the 13th b’ak’tun, at which point we will enter the 14th. Not really much different from our calendar passing from, say, the 19th to the 20th century.

The only reason this event is believed to be so significant is that a couple of scientists interpreted that the Mayans predicted that something incredibly important, perhaps even the apocalypse, would happen on this date. The only problem is that these interpretations were based on single lines of cryptic texts that, sometimes through translation errors and sometimes through their vague nature, seemed to imply a very significant event. These interpretations are no longer supported by the vast majority of experts, and are disregarded as simple human error. There is currently no reason to believe the Mayans placed any special emphasis on this date, other than the fact that it marked the end of one b’ak’tun and the beginning of another.

  • The Earth will collide with Nibiru

This aspect of the 2012 story is particularly hilarious. It’s said that there exists a large planet, alternatively called Nibiru or Planet X, that is about 4 times the size of Earth and orbits far out in the solar system. A little history lesson is due here to see how the idea of Nibiru came to be in the first place. The “Planet X” concept was first proposed in the late 1800’s by an astronomer named Percival Lowell to explain the fact that the orbits of Uranus and Neptune (the two outermost planets in our Solar System) appeared to be a bit “off”. It was his belief that a large, as yet undetected planet was orbiting out beyond Neptune, and he named it “Planet X”. Astronomers searched for nearly 100 years for any evidence of this planet’s existence, until in 1992 it was discovered that the odd orbits of Uranus and Neptune were caused simply by an error in the estimation of Neptune’s mass. Once this error was corrected, there was no longer any reason to suspect the existence of a Planet X. And that’s where the story REALLY gets weird.

In the late ’90s, a Wisconsin woman named Nancy Lieder began claiming that she had made contact with little gray aliens, named “Zetas”, through a communications device planted in her brain. No really, I can’t make this stuff up. So anyway, these little guys graciously informed her that Planet X was, in fact, real. Not only that, but it was called “Nibiru” and, oh by the way, it was due to come dangerously close to Earth and cause all kinds of catastrophic things on May 27, 2003. Oh, 2003 has passed already? Whoops, looks like she actually MEANT to say December 2012. By the way, did I mention she appeared on a radio program days before the supposed May 27 “apocalypse”, advised that all the listeners kill their pets in anticipation of the coming events, and then informed everyone that “a dog makes a good meal“?

So I think it’s safe to say there’s no massive planet hurtling through space with our name on it. Not to mention if there were, we’d have seen it already. And even if all our telescopes somehow managed to miss it, it’d appear very bright in the night sky anyway. Bright enough to be visible to the naked eye, in fact. So unless NASA has developed a way to literally hide something in the night sky across the entire planet, Nibiru is nonsense.

  • The galactic alignment

This little gem comes from the sensationalist author and self-proclaimed “independent researcher” John Major Jenkins. He claims that the sun will complete a cycle that will bring it along the galactic equator and cause it to precisely line up with the center of the galaxy in December 2012. This, apparently, would cause a huge gravitational force that would do all sorts of nasty things to Earth. At least, that’s how the story goes. Of course, for those of us living in reality, the facts are a bit different. The “galactic equator” doesn’t really exist, there’s no clearly defined bounds to the Milky Way, so the equator is a very arbitrarily chosen line that has no real significance. Not to mention this precession of the sun across this line would occur over the course of 36 years, not a single year, much less a specific date. The other part of this story, that the sun will precisely align with the center of the galaxy, is full of problems as well. The sun will certainly line up roughly along the center, but this same thing happens EVERY year. And it actually won’t directly align with the center anyway, but about 6 degrees off-center. And to put the final nail in the coffin, such a proposed perfect alignment would have precisely zero effect on anything in our solar system, anyway. The black hole at the center of our galaxy (the source of this supposed gravitational pull of doom) is so far away that its gravity cannot possibly affect us under any circumstances.

  • Sun storms

This is the only aspect of the 2012 phenomenon that has ANY credence whatsoever. The thought here is that the sun will enter its solar maximum (the part of its cycle in which activity is highest and most intense) in 2012, causing a gigantic solar storm to somehow ruin things for everybody here on Earth. This one isn’t quite as ridiculous as the rest of the theories, as it turns out. The sun does experience solar maximum every 11 or so years, and a particularly intense solar storm could affect Earth. But, as usual, there are many problems with this. First, NASA has released their newest report which indicates that solar maximum should occur somewhere around May 2013, not 2012. They’ve also indicated that this particular solar maximum should be a relatively weak one, significantly weaker than those we’ve experienced in the past. The last issue is that even in an intense solar storm, the worst that is likely to happen is that communication satellites may be affected to some extent, and some power stations that have not been taken offline (it’s likely that the majority of them would be offline in such an event) may be damaged and have to be repaired. Quite an inconvenience, no doubt, but not even remotely threatening to life on Earth. We’ve experienced solar maximums many, many times in the past (every 11 years or so, remember) and have not once been remotely threatened by them. This is not going to suddenly change just because the Mayan calendar is moving to a new b’ak’tun.

So to wrap things up, the Earth and/or life on it is NOT going to come to an end in December 2012. This supposed doomsday will come and go, just as every other purported doomsday of the past has come and gone (Y2K, anyone?). No, really, click the link and skim through the list. The world sure has ended quite a few times, hasn’t it? And that’s just from 2000 on. There have been so many billions of other predictions through history that it’d be impossible to list all of them. That’s the thing about doomsday predictions – if you’re wrong, give it a few weeks or months and everyone will forget about it. No harm, no foul.

That leads me to my final point. While this 2012 business may be total nonsense, there is a serious side to it. Some people take these sorts of things very seriously, and when you combine that with a lack of proper education and critical thinking skills (rather prevalent these days), it can turn bad pretty quickly. There have been many stories of naive people buying into this 2012 nonsense so much that it has caused severe anxiety, depression, and even suicide attempts (you can read a few such reports here, here, here, and here), and the media, internet, et al. has done nothing but fan the flames of this hysteria. It’s this sort of thing that brings up a serious question – is it worth it to build up this ridiculous hysteria just to sell movie tickets and books, attract television audiences, and boost ratings or page hits?

No one is going to stop the money making bonanza that surrounds 2012, but learning the facts for yourself and spreading the truth about this nonsense is a good first step. In the end, the 2012 phenomenon is not so much a study in the prophetic abilities of ancient civilizations as it is the ability, and willingness, of media to capitalize on the naïveté and fears of the public, regardless of the consequences.

Finally, here’s just a couple links to get you started, and I encourage anyone who still believes to do some research of their own and bring some critical thinking to the subject.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2012_phenomenon

http://www.2012hoax.org/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mayan_Long_Count_calendar#2012_and_the_Long_Count