The Big Freeze: How the universe will end

Heat death is a deceptive name. As Michio Kaku explains, entropy doesn't necessarily refer to dramatic destruction; it's more about how stuff just tends to fall apart.

The Big Freeze: How the universe will end

As expansion accelerates, the universe will become freezing mist of electrons and eventually approach absolute zero. At that point, all motion stops... and that's the Big Freeze.

The most widely accepted theory is that the universe will eventually come to an end. It will most likely do so trillions of years from now, when the entire span of the cosmos is empty and just a notch above absolute zero. We sometimes refer to this fate as the "Big Freeze."


Why, you ask? Out of respect for the law—specifically, the second law of thermodynamics, which tells us that total entropy (basically, chaos) in the order of the universe always increases. The second law of thermodynamics is one of the supreme laws in all of physics. If a scientist proposes a theory that violates it, he's in big trouble!

Chaos and disorder: doesn't that suggest a particularly violent end, rather than a big chill? Well, entropy doesn't necessarily refer to dramatic destruction; it's more about how stuff just tends to fall apart. Think about food sitting on your kitchen counter or in your refrigerator for an extended period of time: it will eventually rot. Or your car, which will begin to rust, decreasing its original strength. The example you're most familiar with is the way your body undergoes decline as it ages. Your vision and hearing get worse; you're not as strong as you used to be; your hair thins; you start to see wrinkles; and eventually your bodily processes begin to shut down.

Entropy is unique because it's the only quantity in the physical sciences that indicates a particular direction for time (the "arrow of time"). It tells us that there is no hitting the rewind button to the beginning of the universe.

So the galaxies of the universe will eventually disintegrate, dead dwarf stars will drift away into the darkness along with the halts of neutron stars, and everywhere there will be black holes. There are an estimated 70 sextillion stars in the visible universe, organized in billions upon billions of galaxies. To put things in perspective, that's 70 thousand million, or 7 followed by 22 zeros, and about 10 times as many stars as grains of sand on all the world's beaches and deserts. A number so large, it's almost impossible for us even to imagine.

Right now, we are in the Stelliferous age of the universe: the period in the life of the universe when there are still stars. Yet when the entire age of the universe is taken into consideration, it turns out that stars burn brightly only for a very short time. A trillion years from today, almost all the stars will have burned up all their nuclear fuel. A trillion years after that, even the black holes will have disintegrated; after that, even the protons themselves will begin to decay. The universe will then become a freezing mist of electrons and eventually approach absolute zero. At this point all motion stops...and that's the Big Freeze.

Maybe we will be able to leave the universe before it gets too cold... You can watch a video clip of my Big Think interview (How to Escape to a Parallel Universe) which was recently voted one of Big Think's top ten videos of the first 100 days of 2010.

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images
Surprising Science
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Credit: Pixabay
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