On Friday, Dec. 21, some say, the Mayan apocalypse will arrive and the world will end. Fortunately, it won't.
A bold claim, we know, but if it's good enough for NASA, it's good enough for us. The space agency has already issued a press release dated Dec. 22 entitled "Why the World Didn't End Yesterday."
The Mayan apocalypse predictions arise from a misunderstanding of the ancient Maya Long Count Calendar, which wraps up a 400-year cycle called a b'ak'tun on Dec. 21, 2012, the day of the winter solstice. This just so happens to be the 13th b'ak'tun in the calendar, a benchmark the Maya would have seen as a full cycle of creation.
Did you catch that? Cycle. In other words, the Maya had a cyclical view of time and would not have seen the end of their calendar cycle as the end of the world. It wasn't until Westerners began reinterpreting the calendar in the past couple decades that it got its apocalyptic overtones. [Images: Mayan Calendar Carvings]
Mayan apocalypse rumors have proliferated on the Internet, running the gamut from beliefs that Dec. 21 will bring a new era of peace and universal understanding to predictions of a devastating astronomical event. We're all in favor of world peace, but we're here to put your fears to rest about the likelihood of planetary annihilation. Read on for five common Mayan apocalypse fears and why they won't come true.
Prediction 1: The sun will kill us all
Much has been made by Mayan doomsday fear-mongers of the fact that the sun is currently entering a maximum activity phase. The sun rotates through periods of quiet and activity that peak roughly every 11 years; active periods are marked by an increase in solar storms and flares. [See stunning solar flare photographs]
Some of these flares can indeed influence Earth. When the sun releases electromagnetic particles in such a way that they interact with our atmosphere, solar storms can disrupt telecommunications, though there are ways to protect satellites and other electronics. These charged particles are also responsible for the aurora — the Northern and Southern Lights.
Predictions of a Dec. 21 solar storm that will devastate the planet are not based in reality, according to NASA scientists. This particular solar maximum is one of the "wimpiest" in recent history, according to NASA heliophysicist Lika Guhathakurta, who spoke during an online panel on the Mayan apocalypse on Nov. 28. In other words, scientists have no reason to expect solar storms capable of disrupting our society.
Prediction 2: The Earth's magnetic poles will flip-flop
What is it with the Mayan apocalypse and electromagnetism? This rumor holds that the North and South Poles will suddenly and catastrophically change places on Dec. 21.
The idea isn't as totally leftfield as it sounds: The Earth's magnetic field does actually flip-flop occasionally, though not in the course of a day. The pole swaps happen over the course of hundreds of thousands of years, according to NASA. The switching of magnetic poles could lead to a slight increase in cosmic radiation, but previous flip-flops have not disrupted the life seen in the fossil record.
Predicting the magnetic-pole switch is also tough. The last swap occurred about 780,000 years ago, which puts the planet about due for another change in the next several thousand years. However, there has been at least one period where the magnetic poles stayed put for 30 million years.
Prediction 3: Planet X will collide with Earth
Planet X, sometimes known as Nibiru, does not exist. Nevertheless, some doomsday theorizers have predicted that on Dec. 21, this "rogue planet" will slam into Earth, annihilating all life.
Planet X rumors got their start in 1976, when the late author Zecharia Sitchin claimed to have translated a Sumerian text to rediscover the lost planet Nibiru, which allegedly orbits the sun once every 3,600 years — supposedly explaining why modern man and telescope had failed to notice this planetary neighbor. In 2003, self-described psychic and alien-channeler Nancy Lieder warned that this planet would collide with Earth. When that didn't happen, the date got pushed back to 2012 to coincide with Mayan apocalypse myths.
Of course, a planet set on a collision course with Earth in mere days would be extremely visible to the naked eye. In fact, Nibiru should have shown up as nearly as bright as Mars in the night sky by April 2012, if that scenario were true. Given NASA's capacity to peer into deep space, a nearby planet headed for Earth is not going to escape detection.
"We would have seen it years ago," said Don Yeomans, the manager of NASA's Near-Earth Object program office in Pasadena, Calif.
Prediction 4: The planets will align
Another fear is that the planets will align on Dec. 21, somehow impacting our planet. This one is easy to debunk. Take it away, NASA:
"There are no planetary alignments in the next few decades," according to the space agency's 2012 doomsday myths webpage. "[E]ven if these alignments were to occur, their effects on the Earth would be negligible."
There have been planetary alignments in 1962, 1982 and 2000, according to NASA, and we're all still here.
Prediction 5: Total Earth blackout
This rumor, circulating in spam emails, claims that NASA is predicting a total Earth blackout between Dec. 23 and Dec. 25. Way to ruin Christmas!
Some emails claim that this blackout will occur as the result of the sun and Earth aligning for the first time, while others spin a wild tale about Earth entering "a still ring" called the Photonic belt. Whatever the alleged cause, this is simply not going to happen, according to NASA.
"There is no such alignment," agency officials write.
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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.