Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian

The Meaning of 2012

This image shows the Earth.Click on image to view larger This image shows the long count calendar.

Chances are you have heard that the Maya predicted the end of the world on December 21, 2012. This is the day when the Maya Long Count calendar cycle comes to completion. You may have also heard that the world will supposedly be destroyed by an earthly or cosmic catastrophe. Find out about these predictions – are they fact or fiction?

December 21, 2012 marks the end of an important cycle in the Maya Long Count calendar. This cycle is composed of 13 periods, called baktun, of 144,000 days each. This 13-baktun cycle began on the Long Count calendar date 4 Ajaw 8 Kumk’u, and spans 5,125.366 solar years. Stela C (left) records this date, considered by the Maya to be the creation date of the current or 4th era. The monument is at the archaeological site of Quiriguá, Guatemala. This creation date corresponds to August 11, 3114 BCE. Monument 6 (right), from the archaeological site of Tortuguero in Tabasco, México, records the only known Maya inscription of the end date of the 13-baktun cycle. This end date, 4 Ajaw 3 Kank’in, corresponds to December 21, 2012. There is no evidence in these inscriptions, or in any other record, that the ancient Maya thought that the Long Count calendar would imply some kind of catastrophic “end.” These predictions are unfounded and are not shared by the Maya people today.


This image shows a hurricane from space.

PREDICTION: Increased incidents of catastrophic, extreme weather.

Fact: Incidents of extreme weather (tornadoes, floods, tropical cyclones, fire storms, etc.) show differing trends based on the region and the methods used for the observations. The image shows a satellite view of hurricane Katrina. Some scientists report that the frequency of extreme weather has increased since the 1980s as a result of global warming. Global warming is caused by the increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. However, there are no trends to indicate that any global weather-related catastrophe will occur in 2012, or any other specified year. Weather changes gradually over decades of time. Dangerous weather can happen anywhere in any year.

image shows a destruction from an Earthquake.

PREDICTION: Deadly earthquakes will strike all over the world, destroying human civilization.

Fact: Every year there are millions of earthquakes all over the globe. Earthquakes with a magnitude 5 or greater occur more than 1,400 times per year. Every year on average, there is at least one major quake of a magnitude 8 and greater. There is no indication that the Earth's tectonic activity has been changing. The year 2012 is not expected to be significantly different than other years.

image showing a volcano eruption.

PREDICTION: Volcanoes will erupt all over the world, destroying cities and filling the sky with ash.

Fact: Since the 1960s global communication systems have improved, and there has been more systematic reporting of global volcanism. Based on information gathered over the past few decades, the number of confirmed erupting volcanoes has been between 50 to 70 per year. These data indicate that volcanism has been virtually constant. There are no predictions of increased volcanic activity during 2012.

simulated image of meteor hitting planet earth.

PREDICTION: A large meteor or asteroid will hit the Earth.

Fact: The image shows an artist's conception of a catastrophic collision between an asteroid and Earth. NASA keeps a tally of known asteroid orbits and the risks they pose to our planet. No major impacts are expected in 2012 or in the next few hundred years.

Diagram of the earths magnetic field.

PREDICTION: The Earth's magnetic poles will reverse or shift, leaving our planet's surface unprotected from space radiation, and erasing magnetic data stored in computers.

Fact: Magnetic pole reversals, or shifts, do not happen quickly or regularly. Earth’s magnetic field is generated by electric currents in its spinning liquid iron core. The poles of this field are the magnetic poles. The image shows the Earth’s magnetic field lines curving around the globe. The northern and southern geographic poles are defined by the Earth’s rotational axis, and are not aligned with its magnetic poles. The "north" magnetic pole is in the southern hemisphere, while the "south" magnetic pole is in the northern hemisphere. Magnetic pole reversals, or shifts, have happened many times in the past. Regardless of these shifts, life on Earth has continued.

Picture of solar storm on the Sun.

PREDICTION: A solar storm will hit the Earth destroying the atmosphere, radiating the surface, and causing world-wide blackouts.

Fact: The Sun produces storms that can hit the Earth and affect communication satellites and power grids. These solar storms are more frequent and stronger, when there are many sunspots on its surface. Sunspots are caused by the Sun’s magnetic forces, and appear as dark spots on the visible surface of the Sun in an eleven-year cycle. The image shows the Sun as photographed by the Solar Dynamics Observatory NASA satellite from space. Sunspots have been increasing over the past few years and the number of sunspots is expected to peak in June of 2013. This peak in the number of sunspots is predicted after 2012. In addition, the solar maximum is predicted to be weaker than normal. This means that the likelihood of a major solar storm impacting the Earth is lower than in its past cycles.

Picutre of planets colliding

PREDICTION: A mysterious Planet X in the Solar System may cause celestial objects to crash into the Earth.

Fact: Some theories propose that a planet called Nibiru, Nemesis, Tyche, or simply Planet X lurks in the outer reaches of the Solar System and is large enough to disturb the orbits of comets. Such comets would be sent hurling into the inner regions of the Solar System in a collision course with the Earth. This image is an artist’s rendition of two planetary worlds colliding. Other scenarios propose that this planet will make a trip into the inner Solar System wreaking havoc as it travels through space. Astronomers continue to discover new objects in the outer Solar System. For example, Eris is a dwarf planet discovered in 2005. A NASA satellite mission called WISE was capable of detecting nearby planet-size objects in space. Any object on a collision course with the inner Solar System during 2012 would have easily been seen by WISE during its 2010 survey. No objects were seen.

A diagram of the Milky Way universe.

PREDICTION: On December 21, 2012, when the Long Count calendar ends, a rare Galactic alignment of the Sun and the Milky Way will take place. This only happens once every 26,000 years.

Fact: On the solstice of December 21, 2012, the Sun, as seen from the Earth, will be crossing the plane of the Milky Way Galaxy near its center. This type of alignment of the path of the Sun with the plane of our Galaxy takes place every year; thus, it is not very special. The alignment of the Sun with our Galaxy on the December solstice happens more rarely. This more rare alignment occurs during a 400 consecutive year period, and within every precession cycle of 25,772 years. This is thus somewhat more special. This image shows a planetarium view of the sky illustrating the Sun’s position on December 21, 2012, the date of the solstice. The image reflects what the sky will look like at noon on that day, at the latitude of Chichén Itzá, Yucatán, México. At midday, the Sun will be high in the sky, and projected against the Milky Way Galaxy. The Milky Way will not be visible behind the glare of the Sun of course, but the planetarium image is intended to demonstrate the alignment of the Sun with the band of the Milky Way Galaxy. There is some evidence in the archaeological record that the ancient Maya may have known about the astronomical phenomenon of precession. It is possible that the ancient Maya set the beginning of the Long Count, so that the 13-baktun cycle would complete on the December solstice of 2012. At this time, the Sun will be crossing the Milky Way, the road of the Maya ancestors in the sky.

Section content adapted from material provided by Dr. Bryan Mendez of UC Berkeley Space Sciences Laboratory.

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