A year from today the world will come to an end, according to some who cite the end of the Mayan Long Count calendar as evidence of a Dec. 21, 2012, apocalypse. But both astronomers and experts on Mesoamerican history say the Mayan apocalypse is likely to be another in a long line of failed doomsdays.
According to the Maya Long Count calendar, the winter solstice of 2012 — Dec. 21, 2012 —is the end of a b'ak'tun, a 144,000-day cycle that has repeated 12 times since the mythical Maya creation date. The b'ak'tun that will end in 2012 is the 13th, supposedly a full 5,200-year cycle of creation.
Because of this end date, a number of predictions have attached themselves to Dec. 21, from the end of the world via collision with a rogue planet, to the ushering in of a new world era. But neither historians nor astronomers put much credence in these predictions. [End of the World? Top Doomsday Fears]
Deciphering the Mayan calendar
In fact, according to archaeologists, it wasn't the Mayans who linked the end of the 13th b'ak'tun with the end of the world. According to Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History, when Judeo-Christians began to decipher Mayan writings, their preconceived notions of apocalypse and the end of the world led them to link Mayan calendar cycles with doomsday.
"A lot of the end-of-the-world mythologies are the result of Christian eschatology introduced by Franciscan missionaries," John Hoopes, a scholar of Maya history at the University of Kansas, told Livescience, referring to missionaries just entering the New World andcoming into contact with native people.
Maya scholars disagree on exactly how the Maya people would have interpreted the end of their calendar cycle, Hoopes said, though many say they would have seen it as a new beginning.
Many of the supposed 2012 doomsday scenarios involve astronomical phenomena: A rogue planet, solar storms or a planetary alignment. But NASA scientists say these aren't real threats.
One theory holds that a rogue body called "Planet X" or "Nibiru" will collide with Earth in 2012, snuffing out our planet. The only problem with this theory? Nibiru is made up.
"There's no evidence whatsoever that Nibiru exists," said Don Yeomans, manager of NASA's Near-Earth Object program office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., at a public talk Dec. 8. Yeomans said theories that Nibiru is lurking behind our sun make no sense.
"We would have seen it years ago," he said.
Likewise, Yeomans said, there are no planetary alignments or other astronomical anomalies set for Dec. 21, 2012.
Our stormy sun
One doomsday theory based on perhaps a pinch of science involves the sun. After years of relative peace, the electromagnetic activity on the surface of the sun is heating up, according to NASA. Some fear that an enormous solar flare will engulf Earth or otherwise destroy us.
But this ramping up of activity is typical of our home star, explained Daniel Baker, the director of the laboratory for atmospheric and space physics at the University of Colorado, Boulder, in a talk at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union this month. [Gallery: Our Amazing Sun]
"The sun undergoes an approximately 11-year period of activity," Baker said. "It goes from very weak conditions, the solar minimum, to some very large solar maximum numbers."
The sun has been quiet even by solar minimum standards in recent years, Baker said. The upcoming maximum — set to peak in 2013, not 2012 — is expected to be average. Humans do have to watch out for solar storms, which can disrupt satellite communications and electrical grids here on Earth. Nonetheless, industries can prepare for solar storms, which is why agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have centers whose sole job is to predict these storms' coming.
Different industries adjust in different ways, said Rodney Viereck of the NOAA Space Environment Center. Airlines that rely on satellite communications will fly at latitudes where alternative forms of communication are possible. Industries dependent on Global Positioning System (GPS) technology will delay crucial activities. Power grids will adjust voltages to handle electromagnetic fluctuations.
2012: Just another year
Finally, theories abound online about one more scientific phenomenon and the 2012 apocalypse: a magnetic pole reversal on Earth. Believers worry that a flip-flop of the Earth's magnetic field will throw civilization back into the Stone Age, or perhaps destroy all life on the planet, by temporarily dropping the magnetic-field barrier to radiation from space. NASA scientists, however, say Earthlings can rest easy.
According to NASA, the planet's magnetic field reverses every 200,000 to 300,000 years, though we've currently gone more than twice that without a swap.
But these flips don't happen in an instant, according to the space agency. They occur over hundreds of thousands of years. The last reversal happened 780,000 years ago, according to NASA, and the fossil record shows no sign of any disruption in life.
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Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.