This December, not everyone is concerned with making plans for the New Year—especially not the people who think doomsday will get here first. Instead of planning parties, they're stockpiling food, refining escape routes, and honing survival skills ahead of the alleged date on which the Maya calendar "ends"—December 21, 2012.
So should we all be preparing for imminent apocalypse? According to the scholars, no.
The ancient Maya are usually cited as the predictors of the world coming to an end this month: One of their "great cycles" supposedly ends now. But the Maya were brilliant mathematicians and fantastic record keepers. They didn't have just one calendar. They developed many different kinds, including a cyclical solar calendar and a sacred almanac. They also measured time with something known as the Long Count, which were great cycles of 5,000 years.
Somewhere along the way a rumor spread about the current great cycle, indicating it ends on December 21, 2012. This sparked the belief among some that the last of our days are upon us.
It's not the first time that the possibility of apocalypse has sparked the human imagination. Doomsday prophecies have a rich history, and believers tend to overlook the scientific evidence that disproves them. In this case, the doomsdayers fail to take into account the intricacies of Maya timekeeping.
"There's only one [Maya] monument that even has the 2012 date on it," says Maya scholar Ricardo Agurcia, adding that apocalypse anticipators are ignoring that according to the Maya, when one great cycle ends, another begins. "It's about rebirth, not death." (Read about the rise and fall of the Maya in National Geographic magazine.)
Indeed, the Maya predicted the world would most certainly not end in 2012. Earlier this year, archaeologist and National Geographic Grantee William Saturno discovered a series of numbers painted on the walls at a Maya complex in Guatemala. The calculations included dates that go far into the future. "The ancient Maya predicted the world would continue, that 7,000 years from now, things would be exactly like this," he said in a press release. (See ultra-high-resolution, zoomable pictures from inside a newfound Maya chamber.)
"We keep looking for endings. The Maya were looking for a guarantee that nothing would change. It's an entirely different mindset." (Watch: Mysterious Maya Calendar and Mural Uncovered.)
It Came From Outer Space?
That should be enough to soothe Maya-inspired worries about doomsday scenarios. But what about other potential agents of catastrophe—coronal mass ejections, a "killer planet," polar shifts?
On these possibilities, NASA can shed some light. On his blog Ask an Astrobiologist, NASA space scientist David Morrison has fielded some 5,000 questions about doomsday 2012. People want to know about the existence of Nibiru, or Planet X, and whether it's coming to destroy Earth or not. Others inquire about alignment of the heavenly bodies, shifting of the magnetic poles, and bursting of solar flares. In a YouTube video, Morrison said, "There is no threat to Earth in 2012. Nibiru does not exist. There are no special forces when planets align. Don't worry about 2012, and enjoy 2013 when it comes."
Despite this emphatic professional pushback, anxiety over our impending demise persists. According to an article in the New York Times, a number of Russians have fallen under the apocalypse spell, snatching up essentials as December 21st approaches. The story also cites apprehension in southern France, where certain camps believe Bugarach mountain has the power to protect in a doomsday scenario.
In the United States, doomsday preparers have help from people like Larry Hall, who is building underground luxury "survival condos" in Kansas missile silos leftover from the Cold War era. Careful not to judge anyone's reason for worry, he said, "I'm not saying you're right or you're wrong. I'm just trying to have a one-size-fits-all solution to whatever your threats may be."
Catherine Zuckerman knows her apocalypses. She is author of National Geographic's e-book "Doomsday 2012," which examines the enduring fascination with doomsday predictions.