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Sep 21, 2012

How Do You Think? Will the world really end in 2012?

There have been countless theories throughout time about how the world will end and how -- or if -- life will cease to exist. At the turn of the 21st century, conspiracy theorists claimed that the Y2K bug was only a small part of the impending devastation: The new century would bring about total destruction, and no one would survive. Others believe that Earth is slated for another ice age, which will kill off all living things. And according to astronomers, billions of years from now, the sun will become a red giant, expanding to a size larger than the Earth's orbit and consuming Earth in the process. Even if the planet somehow survives, the sun will eventually shrink, becoming a white dwarf and gradually cooling off until it can no longer warm anything in the solar system.

In 2006, Mel Gibson released a movie about the Mayan civilization. "Apocalypto" follows one man's journey from slavery back to his family. During the course of the movie, a young woman prophesizes that a man will bring an end to the Mayans and wipe out their civilization. But in the real world, it's not a Mayan woman but the Mayan calendar that some speculators believe foretells an apocalyptic event. It even gives us a potential date for the theoretical downfall: Dec. 21, 2012.

Many doomsayers hang onto the idea that this ancient calendar is a ticking time bomb that signals our fast-approaching demise during the 2012 winter solstice. While scholars pay little heed to these fervent forecasts, they're still interested in the calendar. For example, there is some lingering disagreement over which day marks the exact beginning of the Mayan calendar. One commonly referenced date is Aug. 11, 3114 B.C., although other researchers pinpoint dates such as Aug. 13, 3114 B.C. (which would actually shift the big day to Dec. 23).

So how does the Mayan calendar system work? Do the Mayans really believe we have only a limited time left on Earth, and if so, why would Dec. 21, 2012, be the appointed doomsday? Read on to find out if the end is near.

Complicated Calendars

The Mayans have a complex system of calendars, and each calendar has a different purpose. Some of the more commonly known Mayan calendars are:
  • The Tzolk'in Calendar. Used primarily in crop rotation, this calendar allows one 260-day period to ready the land and one 260-day period to grow and harvest the corn. It was also considered a sacred calendar by the Mayans and determined when their rituals occurred. The Tzolk'in uses 20-day signs coupled with 13 number signs to produce the 260 uniquely identified days.
  • The Haab Calendar. This calendar lasts 360 days and breaks down into eighteen 20-day months, with a five-day waiting period at the end that was considered extremely unlucky called the wayeb (also sometimes spelled uayeb). Similar to the Gregorian calendar we use today, the Haab calendar follows the cycle of the sun.
  • The Calendar Round. Every 52 years, the same combination of days would occur in the Tzolk'in calendar and the Haab calendar. This was the basis for the Calendar Round, a 52-year cycle that gave the Mayans a way to record history in longer increments.
  • The Long Count Calendar. It's unclear whether the Mayans created or simply adopted the Long Count calendar, a system that allowed them to uniquely record 1,872,000 consecutive days. They called this period a Great Cycle, which lasts approximately 5,125 years [source: Malmström]. The idea that the world will end in 2012 is based on the Long Count calendar and its concept of Great Cycles.
Use of the Long Count calendar dwindled after the Mayan Classical period (A.D. 250 to 900) and ended soon after the Spanish arrived. However, researchers have used historical texts and ancient inscriptions to draw direct correlations between the Long Count calendar and our modern calendar. Through this work, they determined that the beginning of the current Great Cycle likely fell on Aug. 11, 3114 B.C., making the end of the current Great Cycle land on -- you guessed it -- Dec. 21, 2012 (or potentially Aug. 13 and Dec. 23, depending on which scholar you ask). Apocalypse aficionados seem to be especially set on designating Dec. 21 as the big day since that date is also the winter solstice.
Are there signs that the world is going to end? If so, how will it end? Click over to the next page to discover your fate.

The Long Count to the End

Those who believe that the world will end in 2012 claim that there are many signs that foreshadow the event. One occurrence they point to is the predicted alignment of the winter solstice point with the centerline of the galaxy on Dec. 21. However, astronomers dispute this assertion, insisting that such an alignment cannot actually be calculated accurately and may even be impossible.

Those who believe in the impending apocalypse also point to political upheaval and natural disasters as signs that the end is near. Around 2007, when the 2012 movement first gained traction, speculators pointed to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Today those events undoubtedly include the 2011 earthquake in Japan and the political unrest in the Middle East [sources: Krupp, Brouwer].

Theories about how the world will end are as varied as the supposed signs that foretell of the apocalypse. Some speculators claim that a mysterious planet known as Nibiru, Planet X or Eris, or a large meteor, will collide with Earth in 2012. But astronomers contend that if a celestial body were on a crash course with Earth, they would have already noticed it. Another popular theory is that the Earth's magnetic poles will reverse, causing the planet's rotation to reverse as well. Astronomers also dispute this notion. While the magnetic poles do reverse every 400,000 years or so, this event does not affect the Earth's rotation and will not harm life on Earth. Most scholars see such theories as an example of extremists using misinformation and nonsense to cash in on the fears of others or tailor an apocalyptic event to fit their pre-existing beliefs [sources: NASA, Tulane University].

Despite the cries of doomsayers, the Mayans themselves don't expect that the world will end. In fact, they believe it's a time of great celebration and luck when the planet lasts through a full Great Cycle. Think of it this way: To the Mayans, a Great Cycle is just a really long year. For them, worrying about Dec, 21, 2012, would be like us worrying every Dec. 31.
So what will happen on Dec. 21, 2012? It's likely that the day will pass with no major events at all, with the exception of the extraordinary press it will probably garner. We'll just have to wait and see what happens -- and hope we're still here to update this article on Dec. 22, 2012.

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