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How to survive the apocalypse: A practical guide to the end of days

From climate catastrophe to nuclear winter, just how likely is it that humanity will face an apocalyptic event? We break down the world's biggest threats and what you can do to prepare.

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This story is part of Road Trip 2020, CNET's series on how we're preparing now for what could come next.

Frankly, 2020 feels pretty apocalyptic. 

If you had global pandemic, catastrophic bushfires, trans-atlantic dust storm, murder hornets, plagues of locusts, zombie cicadas and monkeys stealing vials of COVID blood on your bingo card, then you win. 

But if the world was really reaching the end of days, is there anything we could do to stop the carnage? Can we really prepare for doomsday? 

Robert Rodriguez/CNET

It's a question we've been asking ourselves for a long time. In the 1950s, Bert the Turtle coached schoolchildren across the United States to Duck and Cover to avoid "the atomic bomb." In more recent years, Bear Grylls taught ordinary suburbanites how to stay alive if they, too, should find themselves in the wild, by fossicking for edible bugs

But with so many potential disasters facing us and so many ways to prepare for each one, where can the average person start? What choices can we make now that could really make a difference later?

Thankfully, before the murder hornets started rearing their heads and the global outbreak hit, I spent a good deal of time trying to answer that very question. For CNET's recent documentary series Hacking the Apocalypse I travelled around the United States speaking to leading experts about how to escape the end of days. Just how real is the threat of Nuclear Winter? Will the world run out of water? Is the entire Pacific Northwest going to be carved off by a giant earthquake and tsunami

In the spirit of "forewarned is forearmed," let's walk through the apocalyptic situations you could face -- and how you can survive. 

Total planetary destruction

First up, there's not much use in preparing for the kind of cataclysmic, world-ending scenarios you've seen in your standard Roland Emmerich film -- you can't duck and cover from a giant asteroid impact or alien invasion. 

But on the plus side, the odds of an event that catastrophic happening in our lifetimes is pretty slim. NASA's Planetary Defense Coordination Office keeps track of "Near Earth Objects" and even those giant space rocks defined as "Potentially Hazardous Objects" are still only within 4.7 million miles of our planet. As for aliens, the best advice is make yourself valuable to the invading race so they don't force you toil in their underground sugar caves. 

Nuclear war

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There are roughly 14,000 nuclear weapons in the world and 90% of them are in the hands of Russia and the US, according to atmospheric scientist and nuclear expert Professor Brian Toon. And even the smallest weapon in the US arsenal (100 kilotons) would cause catastrophic devastation if it was detonated over a major city. Everything in a six-mile diameter would catch on fire and be destroyed.

"If you get within a mile or so [of the blast], the pressure wave is so intense, it will blow down concrete buildings," Toon told me. "And somewhere in that zone, there's a blast of radiation from the bomb… basically half of the people exposed to that would die over a week or two from radiation burns on their skin and radiation poisoning."

If you survive the initial impact, your troubles are far from over. These kinds of nuclear blasts generate city-wide fires that would push smoke into the stratosphere, blocking out the sun for 10 years and sending temperatures back to what Earth experienced during the last ice age. 

A nuclear blast would lead to fires that could block out the sun and bring about a nuclear winter.

Amy Kim/CNET

The only way you survive in the immediate vicinity is to head underground. If you're used to the finer things in life, you might head to a place like the Survival Condo in rural Kansas, which offers luxury apartments and features like a cinema, swimming pool and climbing wall, all 15 storeys underground -- for $1 million a pop. 

If that's not your vibe and you're further away from the impact zone, you could wait out Nuclear Winter in a prepping community, like Fortitude Ranch in West Virginia. It won't protect you from a direct blast, but it's ideal if you're looking for strength in numbers to survive the long, cold years of a post-apocalyptic winter with no food. And its rural location places it far away from city-dwelling marauding hordes.

There's also another solution -- work to stop the bombs from dropping in the first place. Considering donating to organizations like the Nuclear Threat Initiative or the Ploughshares Fund that work towards global nuclear disarmament.

Pandemic

For the better part of a century, the threat of a devastating pandemic has been the stuff of history books or Hollywood science fiction. Until 2020 rolled around. 

Now, we've all had a crash course in pandemic survival -- from washing our hands thoroughly and wearing a mask, to social distancing and putting up with long lines at supermarkets. Oh, and did I mention the mask

The fact is, most of us haven't had time to rush out and get an epidemiology degree since the coronavirus began sweeping around the world, so we have to put our trust in experts trained in pandemic response. They're the public health policymakers who have been walking through pandemic simulations for decades. They're the front-line health care workers putting their lives on the line to look after us in our time of need. And they're the scientists working overtime on developing a vaccine and new treatments that could help us develop immunity before we get sick. 

As we've all learned, surviving a pandemic is a waiting game. But while you wait, we'll say it again -- wear that mask!

Natural disaster

Some catastrophic events -- pandemic, nuclear posturing -- build slowly. Others come with zero warning, giving you minutes to make a life or death decision. 

An earthquake or tornado could come in the middle of the night. You may have 10 minutes to escape a tsunami. And the difference between being in the direct path of a hurricane and missing it altogether can be a matter of tragic luck. 

This tsunami survival capsule is designed to protect people living in tsunami-prone areas from deadly waves and debris.

Andy Altman/CNET

Thankfully technology is being used in the fight against natural disasters. Firefighters are using big data to predict the path of wildfires in the US and Australia. Researchers are developing ways to use nuclear weapons tracking technology to detect infrasonic signals from tornados and predicting volcano eruptions with drones and lasers. And even when disasters can't be stopped, humans are getting resourceful. Facing a tsunami? You can always jump in your own personal escape pod

Regardless of the disaster situation, there are things you can do to protect yourself. Be ready to evacuate. Store your important documents (passports, birth certificates) in one place. And pack a go-bag. What you pack will depend on the biggest threats in your area -- a go-bag looks different if you're packing it in earthquake-prone San Francisco or for a bushfire-prone house in Australian bush. But having everything in one spot will be a lifesaver if you're trying to get out quickly in the middle of the night. 

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Climate change

Let's get this out of the way. We're beyond the debate about whether climate change is real -- it's a global emergency. And it's being spurred on by human actions. But despite the constant signs of climate change -- devastating fires in Australia, snow turning green in Antarctica, rising seas threatening Venice, the hottest five year stretch on Earth, ever -- humanity is well and truly dragging its feet on doing anything about the problem. This is the slow burn of apocalypses -- the threat feels distant, but we'll all feel the flames eventually.

You can prepare for the effects of climate change (see natural disasters above) but there are also steps you can take to make a difference when it comes to the cause. 

Cut your power use. Drive less. Shop ethically (by choosing sustainable brands, working out where and how your clothes are made or even choosing vintage fashion). Reduce your reliance on plastics. And try cutting down on red meat (did you know beef production requires 28 times more land and 11 times more water than pork or chicken?)

And while you're making changes at home, lobby for change at the higher level. Call or write to your local politician (a social media like or retweet might feel like easy activism, but it's much easier for policymakers to dismiss). And make sure your views on climate change are felt at the ballot box. Enrol to vote. 

Skipping the apocalypse altogether

If the apocalypse is coming and there's no way out, there may be one last way you can escape certain death. But you'll need to be dead first. 

Welcome to the strange world of cryonics -- the experimental procedure that allows you to put your body in sub-zero "suspended animation," after you've been pronounced clinically dead. 

It's unproven and, according to experts, not possible under the laws of neuroscience and biology as we know them. But proponents say it could be a way to gain a second life. By reducing your body temperature post-mortem and pumping your body full of medical-grade antifreeze, cryonicists say it's possible to vitrify a person's brain and organs so they can be preserved for decades in liquid nitrogen, sitting inside a stainless steel tank at -196 degrees Celsius. From there, it may be possible for future generations to restore you to full life (though the details on that side of the equation are sketchy at best). 

It's not for everybody (not least because the procedure will set you back $220,000). But if you want to go all-in on a speculative second chance at life, it could be more of a sure thing compared to having your body incinerated and your ashes scattered to the winds. 

If all else fails, get the hell out of dodge

The final way to escape the end of the world? Leave the world altogether. In the 2020s, humanity is once again turning its eyes skyward and planning ways to get off the planet -- sending the first woman and the next man to the moon and then sending humans on to Mars. 

There's no doubt this is a long play. We won't be getting back to the moon until at least 2024. And while billionaires like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos want to turn humans into a multiplanetary species and have us living in floating space colonies, that won't happen any time soon. 

But if you're a long-term prepper, there's no harm in getting your ducks in a row. Throw your hat in the ring for NASA's astronaut training program, start thinking about where you'll live on Mars and get ready for a very long commute (with a lot of naps). Just think of it like 2020 on steroids -- social distancing and isolation, taken to the extreme. 

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