It may be the end of the world as we know it, but a lot of people still feel fine. Evangelical preacher Harold Camping, 89, has predicted the apocalypse will kick off Saturday, May 21, and hordes of earnest followers have spent years preparing for this weekend's Rapture. And while much of that has taken the form of harmless proselytizing, it has strained some family relationships, the New York Times reports. "I'll say, 'Oh, what are we going to do this summer?' She's going to say, 'The world is going to end on May 21, so I don't know why you're planning for summer,' and then everyone goes, 'Oh, boy,'" the brother of one doomsday devotee tells the Times, adding that he's looking forward to Sunday, May 22. "I'm going to show up at her house so we can have that conversation that's been years in coming."
Lots of apocalypse skeptics have been looking forward to Judgment Weekend, and many are even holding mock celebrations, such as one "Rapture After Party" in Fayetteville, N.C., billed as "the best damned party in North Carolina." Another Rapture party in Tacoma, Wash., is titled "Countdown to Backpedaling: The End is Nah!" As the BBC reports, some people are even trying to capitalize on Armageddon guilt, such as one entrepreneurial atheist in North Hampshire, England, who set up a business to take care of people's pets after they're raptured. Called "Eternal Earth-Bound Pets," the business has more than 250 clients who've paid up to $135 to have their pets picked up and safeguarded amid the chaos of the apocalypse. And as the business's owner tells the Wall Street Journal, his customers will probably be disappointed twice. "Once because they weren't raptured, and again because I don't do refunds."
But might the world really end Saturday? It's always a possibility — after all, as Will Durant once wrote, "Civilization exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice" — but Camping doesn't have a stellar track record when it comes to this sort of thing. He already forecast the apocalypse once before, in 1994, although he and his followers now say they merely miscalculated. This time, Camping says, he's sure end times will begin Saturday, with just 3 percent of the human population being swept up to heaven. The rest will endure five months of misery, until the apocalypse is complete on Oct. 21. But he still represents just a fringe of his own religion, since many Christians are also skeptical of his predictions. As one pastor from Bothell, Wash., tells the Seattle Times, Camping and other would-be soothsayers "have overlooked the obvious words of Jesus: 'You do not know the day or the hour' of such events."
While believers and nonbelievers bicker about the end of the world this weekend, many folks in the Mississippi Delta feel like the apocalypse began weeks ago. The Mississippi River crested Thursday at 57.1 feet in Vicksburg, Miss., continuing a drawn-out disaster that has already wreaked havoc from Cairo, Ill., to Memphis, Tenn. And even though hundreds of people in North Mississippi are celebrating the end of rising water with "river crest parties" this weekend — sort of an anti-Rapture party — it will still be weeks before the flooding ends.
The high water in Vicksburg caused Mississippi's first death from this spring's devastating floods, as a 69-year-old man died Thursday after being rescued from floodwaters. The water has finally stopping rising in the area, CNN reports, but it's still not expected to recede anytime soon: The National Weather Service forecasts the Mississippi won't return to its 43-foot flood stage in Vicksburg until at least June 14, or 46 days after it first climbed over its banks. And for people farther south — from Natchez, Miss., all the way down to New Orleans — the water is still gushing in, especially in Louisiana's Atchafalaya River Basin. That region is being intentionally flooded via the Morganza Spillway, which diverts some of the swollen Mississippi to prevent more severe flooding in densely populated cities like Baton Rouge and New Orleans. The spillway hadn't been opened since 1973, and it now has people across the Atchafalaya Basin scrambling to save what they can, the Baton Rouge Advocate reports. So far, says St. Mary Parish Councilman Charles Walters, the response — volunteers piling up sandbags and building makeshift levees — has been impressive. "It's incredible. You've had a month or two worth of work done in a week's time," Walters tells the Advocate. "If you had told me last Tuesday that we would be at this spot, I would have said you were crazy."
While the flooding has caused — and will continue to cause — widespread damage in the Delta, there is at least one light at the end of the tunnel, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reports (and it's not the Rapture). Opening the Morganza Spillway creates a crawfish boom, as locals remember from the last time it was opened in '73, when there were reportedly so many crawfish lying around that people just picked them up off the levees. Extra oxygen in the water from flooded, decomposing plants helps fuel the population spike, although that can create too much of a good thing, adds Jay Hunter, a marine scientist who endured the '73 floods. "You literally could not give away crawfish because there were so many," he tells the Times.
The U.S. is poised for another "above average" hurricane season, according to government forecasters, who announced Thursday that three to six major hurricanes are expected to form in the Atlantic Ocean this year. Up to 18 named tropical storms may develop during the six-month Atlantic hurricane season — which begins June 1 and lasts until Nov. 30 — and six to 10 of those storms could strengthen into hurricanes, which have maximum sustained winds of at least 74 mph. Three to six of those could become major hurricanes, defined by top winds of at least 111 mph.
The 2010 Atlantic hurricane season was one of the most active on record, spawning 19 named storms and 12 hurricanes, but the U.S. was spared major devastation because most of the storms' tracks kept them out at sea. No major hurricane has made a U.S. landfall in five years, the AP reports, but the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warns that Americans have merely been lucky for those five years, and that coastal residents shouldn't let their guard down. While there's no way to be sure any hurricanes will make landfall in the U.S., a sixth year in a row without such a landfall is statistically unlikely. "The U.S. was lucky last year," NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco tells the AP. "Despite an above-normal season, we did not have significant damage from these storms on U.S. land. The winds that steer where storms go kept them away from our coastlines." And, she adds, "we cannot count on having the same luck this year."
NOAA isn't the only scientific organization to forecast Atlantic hurricane seasons: The Houston Chronicle has compared half a dozen seasonal predictions for 2011, and reports that, on average, there are about 15 named storms expected, eight hurricanes and four major hurricanes. Those numbers are all above normal, and while the U.S. won't have La Niña to worry about this year — La Niña tends to suppress wind shear over the Caribbean Sea, Gulf of Mexico and western Atlantic, making it easier for hurricanes to form — it may not have El Niño to protect it, either, forecasters say. (El Niño has the opposite effect, increasing wind shear and ripping apart hurricanes before they fully develop.) "At this point, I don't think an El Niño will develop this summer or fall, but it is a possibility," says Colorado State hurricane expert Phil Klotzbach. "If we do not get a moderate El Niño event, I would expect to see a reasonably active season in the Atlantic."
China's enormous Three Gorges dam faces "urgent problems," government officials acknowledged Thursday, a rare admission about one of the country's biggest engineering projects in recent history. The world's largest hydroelectric project is plagued by pollution as well as geologic problems, not to mention the prickly situation of the 1.4 million people who have been displaced by the reservoir rising behind the dam. This week marks the five-year anniversary of the dam's completion.
"Although the Three Gorges project provides huge comprehensive benefits, urgent problems must be resolved regarding the smooth relocation of residents, ecological protection and geological disaster prevention," said China's State Council in a carefully worded statement. The dam is a two-decade project aimed at meeting China's skyrocketing energy demand without further boosting its toxic airborne emissions, and as the New York Times reports, it is meeting the government's goal of generating pollution-free electricity, having churned up 84 billion kilowatt-hours of power last year. But it has also created a disaster waiting to happen: Huge amounts of water are piled up in its 410-mile-long reservoir, increasing the risk of landslides and flooding if an earthquake damaged the dam. Some experts even say the pressure of all that displaced water could make earthquakes more likely to occur, by shifting too much weight on the ground too quickly. Chinese officials acknowledge these dangers, but deny that Three Gorges had anything to do with the May 2008 earthquake in Sichuan Province, which killed at least 87,000 people.
The dam's reservoir has also been beset by algae blooms since it was completed in 2006, while pollution and garbage have accumulated there, too. Landslides have already become more common along the reservoir's banks, and with the threat of even larger disasters now salient in the wake of Japan's nuclear crisis, some observers speculate Premier Wen Jiabao may be warning the country's hydroelectricity industry that cutting corners will no longer cut it. "By highlighting the unresolved problems of the Three Gorges dam now, Premier Wen Jiabao, who has stopped destructive projects in the past, may be sending a shot across the bow of a zealous hydropower lobby which would be only too happy to forget about the lessons of the past," Peter Bosshard of International Rivers tells the Guardian.
"Cod Wars" escalate, Three Gorges dam is completed, and more
Photo (Rapture rally in Brooklyn, N.Y., on May 14): WarmSleepy/Flickr
Photo (floodwaters in Vicksburg, Miss., on May 16): ZUMA Press
Photo (Hurricane Katrina, seen via satellite, in 2005): NOAA
Photo (Three Gorges dam): Meng Liang/ChinaFotoPress/ZUMA Press