The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

December 20, 2012

VIDEO | 12/21/12: Doomsday? ... or just another day

Justin Dennis
jdennis@tribdem.com

JOHNSTOWN — This could be the last article you ever read – that is, if the calendar you keep is Mayan instead of Gregorian.

Today, Friday, Dec. 21, 2012 – or 12/21/12 – that calendar, called the Mayan Long Count, is set to expire. Awareness of this date has, over the years, yielded wild and alarming speculation about what it means. Some researchers interpret that the end of their calendar could signify the end of our world ... at least, as we know it.

The Mayans’ grasp of astronomy, their plotted cycle of heavenly bodies and their chronicling of time were sharply accurate, even by today’s standards. Although their empire is long gone, their ancient science still rivals our modern understanding of the cosmos. Even without sophisticated instruments or electronics, they recognized the 26,000-year precession of the Earth’s slightly wobbling axis.

Did they know something about Earth’s fate that we don’t?

“The Hopi Indians, the Tibetans, the Mayans – they all mention that there have been past cleansings on the planet,” said John Ventre, Pennsylvania state director for the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON), who has been studying the 2012 phenomenon since 1996. “Some were due to flooding, some by ice – others talk about asteroid strikes.”

In fact, there have been five mass extinction events in our planet’s history, brought on by rising sea levels, climate change, volcanic activity and/or asteroid impacts. The most recent came late in the Cretaceous period – around 65 million years ago – and ended the reign of the dinosaurs, along with three-quarters of all living species on Earth.

Ventre said the interval pattern for these calamities suggests we’re long overdue for another planetary eviction notice.

Myriad ways to die

As the Mayan “prophecy” has gained exposure during the past several years, doomsaying has reached a fever pitch – less “if” or “when” Armageddon will happen, but “how.”

A look at some of the more popular theories:

• Great flood: According to Ventre, nearly all the world’s cultures maintain their own distinct account of a worldwide flood that decimated life in the distant past. The most widely accepted, of course, is the Bible’s story of Noah and the ark. Flooding has accompanied many of the mass extinction events that Earth has endured, making it seem like the preferred method of obliteration. With the spectre of climate change and increasingly severe weather systems like Hurricane Sandy weighing on minds, this possibility is the most vivid.

• Geomagnetic pole reversal: Here’s one for prime-time TV. As the magnetic field of the Earth gets weaker, an increase in solar activity predicted for 2013 could cause it to “reset” and flip our magnetic poles, meaning North would be South and all our maps would suddenly be upside-down. This has already happened several times with little incident, but with the modern advent of technology, Ventre said it could spell trouble.

“If our magnetic poles were to collapse and reverse, we would fry all electronics, all our satellites,” he said. “We would have absolutely no electricity.”

• Asteroid impact: In 2004, a half-mile-wide asteroid named Apophis was discovered. Its elliptical orbit brings it by Earth once every seven years, swinging lower each time. It had the highest rating ever given on the Torino Scale – which measures the threat of impact from near-Earth objects – and it’s set to pass under our satellites in 2029.

When first discovered, it was given a roughly 3 percent chance to strike in 2036. But as Apophis continues its latest pass into early next year, scientists expect the data collected on its trajectory to rule out the possibility of an impact.

• Supervolcano eruption: According to Ventre, three of the world’s seven supervolcanoes are in the United States. The largest of those is the Yellowstone Caldera under Yellowstone Lake in Wyoming, which Ventre said is 40,000 years overdue for an eruption.

“Yellowstone is getting all kinds of tremors from earthquakes; the ground swells up,” he said. “If that does blow, it would drop 8 feet of ash on all the surrounding states and pretty much take out the breadbasket of the United States.”

The last supervolcano event – the Toba eruption on the island of Sumatra – happened around 73,000 years ago and reduced humanity to mere thousands.

Alien invasion/intervention: The concept of extraterrestrials that have quietly influenced human development throughout history provides a complementary backdrop to the 2012 phenomenon – one that Ventre said he couldn’t overlook.

“If you look at the Mayan culture,” he said, “they went from being Stone Age people to all of a sudden building suspension bridges, doing dentistry, they had mathematics, astronomy.”

They had help, is what he’s implying. A common motif in the creation myths of ancient societies is the home from which their divine ancestors claimed to have come – “the stars.” Researchers assert that a race of extraterrestrials brought advanced knowledge to these cultures in the distant past before vowing to return to Earth one day. But to what end? Or whose end? Ours?

“(The Mayans) never said anything was going to happen in December of 2012,” said Ventre, explaining that the end of the Mayan Long Count merely signifies an end to the current astrological cycle – the planet’s movement out of the Mayans’ “Age of Pisces” and into the “Age of Aquarius.”

Much like this heavenly cycle, proponents of the “ancient astronaut” theory paint this “end of the world” concept as a way to describe the end of our modern paradigm and the beginning of a new one – when our cosmic caretakers reveal their presence to us, ushering in a new age of enlightenment. While all this might sound fantastical or downright absurd, it’s notable that the etymology of the word “apocalypse” is from the Greek – defined as a “revelation” or a “lifting of the veil.”

‘No man knows the day or the hour’

While molten magma, three-story-tall tsunamis and falling space rocks may make a great Steven Spielberg flick, it does little to faze most Johnstowners, who continue to lean on strong faith in these “end times.”

“The Bible says that no man will know ... and that’s what I believe. I have faith,” said Jack Bahorik of Johnstown.

“I think some dude just got bored of filling out the calendar, so he was done,” he said with a laugh.

According to a recently commissioned Reuters poll, only 12 percent of Americans believe the world will end today and 22 percent believe the world will end in our lifetime. Eight percent of people worldwide admitted to feelings of anxiety or fear in relation to the Mayan “prophecy.”

While Brandon Strenko of Lancaster said he was concerned by the dire year-end predictions plastered all over the Web, he said he wasn’t going to quit school, “just in case.”

“With the riots that could happen because of people thinking like this, it could really affect us,” he said.

But wait, haven’t we done this “Judgment Day Jitterbug” once or twice already?

“I’ve lived through three (“end of the world” scenarios) now, so I don’t think the fourth will be any different,” said Bahorik, referencing 1999’s “Y2K” hysteria and Harold Camping’s expensive yet anti-climactic May 2011 prediction.

It seems everyone wants a piece of the 2012 phenomenon. Between The History Channel’s glut of 2012-themed series, which includes “Ancient Aliens” and “Decoding the Past,” and Roland Emmerich’s box office bomb “2012,” there’s plenty of material in the mainstream to thrill audiences. But most feel this pop culture craze also opens the door to rampant sensationalism and far more bad information than good.

“Now that we have the Internet, you can find all kinds of doomsday theories,” said Melody Barkhimer of Johnstown. “There’s one every year. Why’s this one special?”

For at least one local woman, the “ancient astronaut” theory that frames the 2012 mythos bridges the gap between the mystical and the scientific, creating a fresh spiritual worldview centered around a higher cosmic power that isn’t the traditional Judeo-Christian God.

“Something just clicked in my head,” said Karen DiFlauro of Richland Township. “It’s the answer I’ve been looking for all my life. I can’t get enough of it now. It’s just so interesting.”

DiFlauro said she “constantly” watches the educational channels with “ancient astronaut” or 2012-themed programming – The History Channel, Discovery Channel or National Geographic – and subscribes to their premium channel offerings as well.

“I hope this all happens before I die – I just want to know that I’m right,” she said.

‘A break from the norm’

Doomsday “prophecies” have been spun and retracted – their end dates passing by quietly – throughout human history. Camping also made the same prediction in 1994. The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, specifically former President Charles Russell, prophesied the “end of human rulership” multiple times through the late 19th century and into the 20th century.

Where does this “Chicken Little” behavior come from? Why is our culture obsessed with reaching that final curtain call?

“I think people just need to break from the norm every once in a while,” said Michael Benza of Windber.

Doom, gloom and the end of all existence aside, the “end of the world” promises to be – by its very definition – the most exciting thing to ever happen on our planet. But Randy Hendrick of Windber thinks looking ahead to it is unhealthy.

“The people that really get hyped over it are searching for something to be excited over,” he said. “I think (the end of the world will) be something I don’t want to be involved in.”

“I feel it brings a kind of ‘content,’ ” said Taylor Fraley of the Morrellville section of Johnstown. “People suddenly ‘know.’ There’s something about not knowing that causes issues.”

“Everyone wants to know when they’re going to die,” said Strenko. “So they can prepare for it.”

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