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I want a realistic event to occur that kills the majority of the Earth's population. However, the nature of this event must not effect humans or machinery currently flying at high altitudes (those of passenger airplanes).

The event can be singular or be multiple events occurring simultaneously around the globe.

It should also be unexpected -- commercial airlines would likely be prohibited from flying if threat of nuclear war was escalating (and then acted on while the airline is in flight).

Natural disasters are not quite relevant because they cannot match the cataclysmic scale of wiping out everyone on the surface simultaneously.

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    $\begingroup$ Just to make sure - you want it happen fast, too? Not only low enough for jetliner to survive, but also fast enough to get them chance to land safe, right? $\endgroup$ – Mołot Jan 16 '17 at 21:20
  • $\begingroup$ See Immorality by Kevin Bohacz , in which the wealthy hide out in airliners flying figure-8 patterns to avoid the signal that kills everyone. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Jan 16 '17 at 21:36
  • $\begingroup$ Not sure if what you are asking for is scientifically plausible. Whatever event you are looking for has to kill 7 billion people in a very short time frame. It also has to operate on a very large horizontal, but not vertical area. Earth is very large, you wish to affect all of it, but any event of that size would probably affect airliners too, since on a global scale airplanes do not operate that far from the ground. $\endgroup$ – r41n Jan 17 '17 at 15:14
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    $\begingroup$ Out of curiosity, is it a requirement that everyone dies simultaneously? For example, let's say that the cataclysm started in an area the size of New York City and expands out from there. The plane is then able (or forced) to land in New York after everyone in the city is dead, and the cataclysm continues to spread for the next few hours/days/weeks. The earth is a pretty big place; destroying most of the people on it will probably take longer than the fuel in a standard plane lasts. $\endgroup$ – GrinningX Jan 17 '17 at 17:35
  • $\begingroup$ Related: aviation.stackexchange.com/q/37569 (I'm actually creating a setting that also relies on airplanes staying in the air, it was sort of funny that I came across your post here at the same time, so I just asked about it over on aviation.) $\endgroup$ – Jason C May 1 '17 at 18:17
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You can find such an apocalypse in the Genesis: the Deluge.

A Great Flood can allegedly kill everyone in the surface. You only need it to take just a few hours, to prevent airliners to run out of fuel, and the clouds causing the rain be must low enough to allow planes fly over them.

Even if by the time the planes run out of fuel waters are still high (but calm), airliners can ditch in water.

Most people won't say this answer is science based, but even if you don't believe literally what is told in the Bible, there have been a lot of attempts to give scientific explanations to the deluge. Probably none of them would hold a serious scientific scrutiny, but anyway they are about the level expected in science based Worbulding SE questions.

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    $\begingroup$ I recall a bible story of stopping the sun in the sky, if you stopped Earth's spin every one hits the east wall at hundreds of miles per hour airplanes might survive. $\endgroup$ – user25818 Jan 17 '17 at 0:24
  • $\begingroup$ @notstoreboughtdirt also everything would rip apart and there'd be no planet naymore $\endgroup$ – dot_Sp0T Jan 17 '17 at 12:45
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    $\begingroup$ There have been attempts to explain biblical events scientifically, and they are as serious as most attempts to explain science based answers in Wordbuilding SE. I don't think recalling or making up scientific explanations for the deluge would add interest to the answer. Furthermore, taking examples from the bible -with due respect to believers- is not different from taking examples from any other known story. $\endgroup$ – Pere Jan 17 '17 at 18:47
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    $\begingroup$ The problem with a flood killing everybody, though, is that's a lot of water. If all the ice caps melted it still wouldn't cover all of the land, also you've got mountains up to 30,000ft, and points 1500+ miles from oceans. It'd be a tough one without some kind of land-destruction taking place, too, sinking/breaking up continents. $\endgroup$ – Jason C Apr 30 '17 at 14:16
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    $\begingroup$ @Jason The "realistic event" part of the question is the hardest one. Getting (or moving) such an amount of water isn't harder the getting the aliens or the CO2 needed for other answers (we might use a transdimensional door to an ocean world, cause a miles-high tide, or expand ocean water three-fold by dissolving a little handwavium on it). Anyway, for me the main problem is raising the ocean by some miles in a few hours while keeping the atmosphere steady enough allow airliners to keep flying. I suppose we need to rely in very skilled pilots. $\endgroup$ – Pere May 1 '17 at 11:17
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The cell-phone delivered rage-inducing subsonic pulse described in the first Kingsman movie might fit your needs. At least for those planes which aren't equipped with hardware to let passenger cellphones work at altitude.

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  • $\begingroup$ yeah, i was thinking something similar to this or the black mirror episode 'white bear' $\endgroup$ – socrates Jan 16 '17 at 23:51
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Two alien races have been duking it out between the stars. The difficulty of moving things between the stars has caused this war to strongly favor the defense, hence it has become a war of stealth rather than battle fleets.

Race #1 paid a visit to the solar system. They were detected by the enemy who mistakenly thought it meant they lived here rather than just passing through. Missiles with a nanotech warhead are dispatched, when they enter the solar system they find only two targets emitting electromagnetic energy: Earth and Mars. They're very stealthy, we don't even detect them, let alone try to shoot them down. One missile goes for Mars, the others go for Earth.

The missiles release a huge number of pellets designed to deliver their weapon through the atmosphere while minimizing reaction time and the ability of point defenses to destroy them, a classic time-on-target attack.

The nanomachines are not all that sophisticated (there's a limit of how much computing you can put in something that small), human beings are a sufficient match for their target parameters. While it isn't a grey goo attack the machines do replicate and spread, quickly killing off everyone they can reach.

Their target species does not use aircraft so there is no provision to attack targets in the stratosphere.

The whole point of using a nanotech attack is to take the planet intact rather than simply destroying the biosphere, thus the machines soon deactivate. By the time the planes land it's all over.

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Sudden emission of carbon dioxide, similar to what happened at Lake Nyos https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lake_Nyos

Could be due natural processes (previously unknown process inside mantle causing co2 rich magma to suddenly de-gas) or man-made: act of terror on global scale forcing sudden release of co2 from commonly used sewage treatment devices underneath most of cities in your world.

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With hard science and modern technology you can't killing off humanity in a couple of hours requires some form of high energy destruction, no disease can do it. And anything energetic enough to wipe out humanity all across the globe will kill aircraft as well. The only thing that will work is some kind of delayed well timed kill event like a nanobot attack, where the bot spread out over time long before the aircraft takes off. Then some kind a of one time signal triggers them to kill all humans and bots above a certain altitude don't get or don't react to the signal.

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There is a clue in the Andromeda strain and also most Zombie universes. The problem with the Andromeda strain was that the virus mutated so quickly it became non-virulent. However, it was airborne and quickly spread to all people.
So now you have everybody busy coughing on others and then dying. What about the people who ran into an air-proof room or sealed themselves? That's where the zombie component comes in. Before the virus kills the host, it causes the infected to do things that are not logical and damage the life support of anyone in an airproof location. The virus can infect anyone through the air and water. However, the virus has a heavy molecule that makes it mostly heavier than air (though still light enough to drift at nose level). So at altitude there would be no concentration of viruses. People in comercial planes may survive.

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  • $\begingroup$ Those in pressurized cabins would be even more likely to survive. $\endgroup$ – Gryphon Mar 30 '17 at 4:43
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That asteroid killed all the dinosaurs and lots of other stuff besides, and did it in a day. The mechanism: asteroid hits, splashes material up and out. Then many many reentry events heat the atmosphere too hot for life. It only stayed that hot for a day or so but that is more than you need.

https://www.psi.edu/epo/ktimpact/ktimpact.html

Boiling hot atmosphere for a day would do for most people on the surface. A bomb shelter or deep basement would be ok for a while but you need air in there. Most air conditioners use outside air as a heat sink which would not work if air was 100C +. You might survive if you had a large volume of water as a heat sink or a tight, deep enclosed place with enough air to tide you over. I am thinking now about the pressure effects on the atmosphere in a cave if the air outside were 100C. There would be some serious wind.

It is cool up in the upper atmosphere and so a long flying plane would be a fine place to ride this out. Unless you got hit by one of the pieces of crust re-entering.

It would be quite a world to return to.

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  • $\begingroup$ The effects were not excessive heat (except in the near area) but enormous clouds of dust that blocked the sun and killed most plant life, which meant the herbivores starved, which meant the carnivores starved. The deaths would be from starvation, and take place over years, so this obviously doesn't satisfy the requirements outlined in the question. $\endgroup$ – Gryphon Mar 30 '17 at 4:42
  • $\begingroup$ Take a look at the link @Gryphon. "Later calculations (especially by Jay Melosh at the University of Arizona) indicated that for the first few hours after the impact, rocky debris would have fallen back into the high atmosphere, creating a storm of glowing fireballs in the sky. The radiant energy from these would have heated the surface to boiling temperatures for some minutes, and would have been enough to kill many animals and plants on the surface" $\endgroup$ – Willk Apr 3 '17 at 3:40
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, but you are about as likely to get hit by one of these "fireballs" in a plane as on the ground. Although many people would be killed, it would be nowhere near the majority of the population. $\endgroup$ – Gryphon Apr 3 '17 at 10:43
  • $\begingroup$ The link also said that the high atmosphere would have been covered in dust, killing some plants, and that would have had a ripple effect up the food chain. I also don't see how the splashback of an impact could hit the other side of the planet, which would be what the fireballs would have to do to hit anyone there. $\endgroup$ – Gryphon Apr 3 '17 at 10:48
  • $\begingroup$ The fireballs did not whack into individual dinosaurs. They heated up the atmosphere. Generally it is a lot cooler the higher up you are. On the plane I was on today it said it was -55F outside. But maybe the upper atmosphere would have been super hot too if heating is done via re-entering fireballs. $\endgroup$ – Willk Apr 4 '17 at 2:09

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