My googling says that the catastrophe in "The Road" is unexplained.

Given what we can see on-screen, can anyone come up with a better explanation for how the world got that way?

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    This question appears to be off-topic because it is about a book/movie that is neither sci-fi or fantasy. Jan 4, 2015 at 16:38
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    @MajorStackings -I disagree. The book & film are explicitly stated to be set in the future, after some sort of apocalyptic event. Although the author claims it to be "not science fiction", that only pushes it further into the "fantasy" category; nybooks.com/articles/archives/2007/feb/15/after-the-apocalypse
    – Valorum
    Jan 4, 2015 at 17:17
  • It's the story of a father and sons hopeless journey in a hopeless world. No elves. No laserbeams. Just a coke and a smile. Jan 4, 2015 at 19:47
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    @MajorStackings Neither science fiction nor fantasy need elves or laserbeams to be science fiction/fantasy.
    – JAB
    May 4, 2017 at 22:12
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    We are not intended to think much about how it has happened; the catastrophe is a premise we need not analyse. If one does, however, the most striking – and to my mind unrealistic – feature is that all non-human life seems to be impossible. I would expect any of the catastrophes proposed so far to allow many simpler life-forms to survive, and that humans would be more likely to perish, though admittedly access to locked or packaged caches helps them.
    – PJTraill
    Jul 4, 2017 at 8:31

12 Answers 12


TL;DR: We don't know.

Word of God:

The author, Cormac McCarthy, refuses to reveal what happened:

I don't have an opinion. It could be anything – volcanic activity or it could be nuclear war. It is not really important. The whole thing now is, what do you do? The last time the caldera in Yellowstone blew, the entire North American continent was under about a foot of ash. People who've gone diving in Yellowstone lake say that there is a bulge in the floor that is now about 100 feet high and the whole thing is just sort of pulsing. From different people, you get different answers, but it could go in another three to four thousand years or it could go on Thursday...

What we do know is that in the course of planning the book, McCarthy asked paleobiologist Doug Erwin (a friend he knows from his work as a research fellow at the Santa Fe Institute) about the meteor that killed off the dinosaurs:

ONE DAY A FEW YEARS AGO, after checking his mail and pouring his coffee, McCarthy gingerly made his way down the hall at the Institute. He passed the equation-scrawled windowpane, down the steps where Dr. Zen was curled in the corner, past the long, red sofa where a grad student lay sprawled, and into the corner office of his friend Doug Erwin. Then he started asking about the apocalypse. In particular, he wanted to know about extinction-the Cretaceous-Tertiary meteorite that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago...

Erwin told McCarthy about the likely aftermath of the deadly meteorite: the magnitude of the desolation, the collapse of ecosystems, the fallout of debris and gases. Then, one day last year, Erwin sat down to read a galley of The Road, which depicts the harrowing, post-apocalyptic journey of a father and son. Erwin smiled – so this is what McCarthy was up to, he figured.

Erwin himself wrote an article about this issue, and has no concrete answers - despite his friendship with McCarthy:

If Cormac McCarthy knows what caused the cataclysm in The Road, he's not telling, and we're all left to speculate. Was it a nuclear exchange? A massive volcanic eruption? The impact of an extraterrestrial object? We don't know, and in some sense, it does not really matter.

Descriptions in the text:

These offer no conclusive evidence, either.

The disaster itself:

The clocks stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions. He got up and went to the window. What is it? she said. He didn't answer. He went into the bathroom and threw the light switch but the power was already gone. A dull rose glow in the window glass. He dropped to one knee and raised the lever to stop the tub and then turned on both taps as far as they would go. She was standing in the doorway in her nightwear, clutching the jamb, cradling her belly in one hand. What is it? she said. What is happening?
The Road, Cormac McCarthy

After-effects of the disaster:

The lingering effects of the cataclysm include:

  • Near-extinction of all life, including humans, other animals (e.g., birds, dogs, deer, fish, etc.), and plants. During the novel's "present-day", the only animals we encounter are some skeletal remains and a solitary dog who barks in the distance; there are no living plants (as far as I can determine), but the Man finds some morel mushrooms at one point.
  • Evidence of massive, widespread fires, including charred remains of trees, buildings, corpses, etc, and a layer of ash covering the entire landscape.
  • Skies left completely obscured by a heavy shroud of dark grey clouds.
  • There is one earthquake in the novel, but we don't know whether this is a one-time fluke, or a frequent occurrence connected to the catastrophe.

Descriptions in the text vs. what we know would happen after one of the most commonly suggested theories about the nature of the catastrophe in The Road:

These clues don't point to any of the most commonly proposed theories about what caused the world to end - climate change, nuclear war, volcanic activity, or an asteroid impact.

Nuclear War:

  • Scientists now say that a nuclear exchange wouldn't wipe out all life on earth, or even the entire human race:

    Although extinction of our species was not ruled out in initial studies by biologists, it now seems that this would not take place... The oxygen consumption by the fires would be inconsequential, as would the effect on the atmospheric greenhouse by carbon dioxide production.

  • If we assume that McCarthy intended for the earthquake(s) to be a by-product of the cataclysm, occurring frequently over many years after the disaster began, we must rule out nuclear warfare. All the nukes in the world wouldn't cause years of earthquakes.

  • The novel gives us little or no reason to believe that radiation is a threat to the Man and Boy, but it would be a significant concern after a nuclear war.

Asteroid/meteor impact:

  • The Man sees "a long shear of light" when the event occurs. If he was close enough to see the flash of an impact by an object large enough to kill off almost all life on earth, he'd be far too close to survive for more than a few seconds.

  • As Erwin explains, the dark skies and absence of vegetation in The Road do not agree with the actual aftermath of an impact by an extraterrestrial object:

    Geologists and paleontologists (who study fossils) have studied how plants and animals responded to the six great mass extinctions of the past 600 million years, as well as smaller events such as massive volcanic eruptions. The first organisms to reappear are often ferns and weedy flowering plants that reproduce and spread rapidly. In the sea, many microbes and some algae spread rapidly. The deforestation described in The Road would release nutrients from the land into rivers, lakes and the ocean, encouraging further growth.

    “Instead of having gray skies that look like Beijing, it would actually be blue skies, like this,” Erwin tells me one afternoon, as he motions outside his window to the hills rolling down toward Santa Fe. “There would also be a lot more ferns. But because of what he was trying to achieve, he had to take some artistic license. That book was about his son.”

Climate change:

  • Climate change is causing all sorts of damage to the planet, but no one is seriously suggesting that it will lead to worldwide infernos, the extinction of all plant and animal life, earthquakes, explosions, or a complete darkening of the skies for a decade or more. Jared Diamond describes the worst-case scenario of a global collapse caused by human activity which destroys the environment - in short, a world in which life exists, but is far less pleasant:

    Much more likely than a doomsday scenario involving human extinction or an apocalyptic collapse of industrial civilization would be ‘just’ a future of significantly lower living standards, chronically higher risks, and the undermining of what we now consider some of our key values.
    Collapse, Jared Diamond

Volcanic activity:

  • The eruption of a supervolcano would be catastrophic on the continent on which it occurred, but it wouldn't kill every living thing on the planet.

  • Again, the Man sees a flash of light when the apocalypse begins, and if he can actually see a supervolcano erupting, he is so close to the volcano that he'll be dead in minutes. Everyone living within hundreds of miles of him is going to die in the immediate future as well. He won't be wandering around ten years later with a son who wasn't even born yet when the eruption took place.


We don't know what caused the apocalypse; the evidence provided by McCarthy doesn't completely support any of the commonly proposed causes of the apocalypse; and McCarthy says it doesn't matter.

  • The asteroid impact seems the most plausible. What the man sees could be re-entry fragments caused by the original impact. In case of a major impact like the K-T event Nasa writes: "there would have been enormous shock wave heating and fires, tremendous earthquake, hurricane winds, and trillions of tons of debris thrown everywhere. It would have created months of darkness and cooler temperatures globally. There would have been concentrated nitric acid rains worldwide. Sulfuric acid aerosols may have cooled Earth for years." Seems fitting to me. Mar 26, 2021 at 20:10
  • The only thing missing in your answer is the parallel with "Roadside picnic" by the Strugatsky brothers - where the Zone was created by an equally enigmatic event.
    – virolino
    May 15 at 14:35

It was most likely the result of Supervolcano under Yellowstone National Park erupting. Scientists believe a volcanic eruption that big would cover the globe in a shroud of thick smoke for a very long time, blocking out the sun, killing plant life and then everything with it. It explains why it snows ash regularly, and also the earthquakes and the fires. A meteor or infected water being the cause is preposterous.

Also the cannibals eat people who scavenge the remnant food from pre-apocalypse times, and I don't know if you noticed but there are hardly any people left, so all food sources are running out whether that be a can of tinned beans or a father and his child.

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    I think that this answer is probably the most accurate, given McCarthy's well-known love for the Western U.S. Even if the science doesn't match up completely, I feel like it's more likely that this scenario was the inspiration. Feb 7, 2015 at 12:52

As I remember, it was unexplained but had something to do with massive fire(s). The movie somewhat shows this, but the book talks about grey skies, dead plant life, earthquakes, et cetera. Since it happened suddenly, I'm kind of assuming some kind of natural planetary disaster, like a meteor or comet strike(s).

It's interesting to think about and discuss from a science point-of-view, but totally unnecessary for the human drama... other than the creation of a hostile environment.

Great book, in my opinion.

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    Great book, but hella depressing!
    – erik
    Jan 11, 2011 at 21:08
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    I think they took the idea of not explaining the source of the apocalypse from Day of the Triffids. Mar 17, 2011 at 14:12
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    I loved the book, but the "everything is dead and burned thing irritated me a bit; I mean, the scale of the disaster was necessary for the human drama, but was unrealistic scientifically. Either everything would be gone (including us) or it wouldn't. To have everything except people be gone? More subjectively, I felt like, man being a social animal, we'd have pulled together into enclaves, rather than devolve into cannibalism. Talk about an unsustainable food model. If everyone is starving, where are all these well fed people they're feeding off of coming from? Apr 7, 2011 at 14:12
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    These guys might disagree with you...
    – erik
    Aug 4, 2011 at 14:14

I haven't read the book - just saw the movie. I still feel lucky any time I drink a can of coke now from watching that movie :)

I've wondered what it might have been that caused the world to go to hell. From the movie, as Rodger's answer mentioned, it looks like there are fires and earthquakes, not to mention what looks like much colder weather.

The only things I can think of that would cause fires AND earthquakes would be either a meteor hit, or some massive volcanic eruption.

I don't think I've read anything showing that a massive eruption would lead to long-lasting aftershocks (quakes). I'm not sure if a meteor hit would do that either. I'd think if a meteor hit would do that, there wouldn't be any life left on earth from an impact that big. Both of them can lead to cooler weather from ash blocking sunlight. I don't remember - was there any acid rain in the road? If so, I think that's more of an indicator of a volcano than a meteor.

  • Really depends on the size of the meteor, I guess. Either could cause earthquakes, fires, and dark skies. Jan 11, 2011 at 23:02
  • @merk - if a large enough supervolcano blew, it would probably have long lasting effects with tremors and aftershocks: it could also still be blowing (the Deccan Traps erupted for hundreds of years).
    – HorusKol
    Jan 12, 2012 at 6:17

It lets the reader/viewer put their own "most terrible event" into the story, as well as doesn't bog the story down with the cause of the disaster. The story is about the survivors trying to live.


When the man and boy are talking to the old man Eli, he mentions that we had the warnings but didn't heed them (or something to that effect). This must point to a massive ecological disaster brought on by global warming. I have to agree with the poster above though, the reason for the cataclysm really is irrelevant in the story. It's not meant as a commentary on the ecological state of the planet but as the backdrop which provides extreme adversity in which the miricle of life and the essence of our humanity continues to hold on, albeit very tenuously.


It is/was a foreign object impact on earth, no doubt. In the movie, the man first becomes aware of something wrong when a flickering orange glow bleeds into his bedroom windows...all vegetation and subsequently animal life ceases to exist....large ships are shown lobbed onto dry land far from the oceans. All of these things point to meteor impact. Just one meteor the size of the Chicxulub impact 65 Million years ago would be sufficient to create an extinction level event, causing tsunami events world wide, instantly heating the atmosphere enough to kill almost all life forms, especially plant life. Ash layering in the stratosphere would block the Sun's rays, so no plants grow back. Animals, die, trees fall. Ten years later, when the movie takes place, you have small groups of humanity struggling to hang on, scavenging where they can. Saddest part of the movie is the boy, who had never in his life known anything other than the gray landscape he walked through.


sean keven, I can see why you said what you said, especially about that metor called Chicxulub. I searched it up and found this video. In the video I saw that after ten years the dust was gone, so maybe that is why you said that was when the movie took place. However there was still a lot of dust in the movie, and if it was an meteor that big the little house where they lived wouldn't protect them. Any place that close could have seen a bright orange/red light, plus the dust should have cleared up after around three years, especially five. I am just getting that from the video, but the boy was five years old in the book right? Maybe the actor was seven or ten in the movie but in the book he was supposedly five.

Okay, now for what I think happened:

I think it was the super-volcano in Yellowstone Park. Why?

  1. It would have made the world go under ash for a long time and make it very cold while killing off everything.
  2. It would cause earthquakes and aftershocks for a long time after. Some of those earthquakes could have generated a tsunami, making the boats appear on land like in the movie.
  3. That volcano would have been powerful enough to set a lot of things on fire, but not have enough power to kill everything on the earth with its eruption. However what could have killed everything was the fires it set, which could have travelled far from the affected areas. That means the fire could have reached very far away but not the force or lava of the volcano. In the movie you saw most houses burnt up and destroyed, but where the father lived you could only notice a light fire.

Now, why couldn't it have been a meteor or nuclear fallout? It could not have been a meteor because a meteor with the power to destroy that much in an area would be able to destroy most of the world, including the house where the father lived. It may have been a smallish meteor and only effected that side of the world, meaning Europe and Asia could have not gotten the full blow but still functioning well while not bothering in helping anyone in America since it is most likely everyone died.

It could not have been any nuclear bombs becuase they would not have caused aftershocks or earthquakes 5+ years after, and almost nothing seemed irridated and unsafe to consume. Also it would have killed anything in the area it damaged, not just set stuff on fire for a long time.

That is just what I think and I am not an expert, as I am just a 13 year old but I still am not a idiot. Maybe just someone that doesn't know a lot about those things. However I really think it was a super-volcano.

Also, a meteor would not have hit without anyone knowing because right now we know when one will hit, or at least have an idea and most likely would be able to stop it. I heard of those rockets they can use to send a meteor away from Earth. If it was huge with a large amount of power it would have been unstoppable but if that happened everything would have been incinerated. Maybe it was a nuclear fallout though I doubt it. The only reason I have it in mind was becuase of the bomb shelter they found, but that bomb shelter seemed to have been good enough for a volcanic eruption compared to the other buildings.

  • I don't believe that there is a plausible disaster that could cause what is described in the book. However, your answer is persuasive, and certainly it comes closest the description. I'm voting this up.
    – John O
    Sep 29, 2012 at 1:15

Also mentioned in the book was that the birds had been dead and forgotten for quite some time and that the sea was "no longer sea smelling". I found the latter to be the most harrowing. If you watch the part where the man washes his son's hair in the water, you will see that the water is greenish yellow.


In the book The Road references are made of a flash and booms and some sort of blossoming orange glow that makes me think of a mushroom cloud from a BIG bomb. But the ash everywhere makes me highly consider the Yellowstone volcano theory. That sort of thing would have clouded the atmosphere for years, which makes sense too.

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    Ash also rains down after a nuclear bomb detonates (nuclear fallout).
    – Kevin
    Apr 4, 2012 at 13:10

A meteorite. In the movie there is a shot of boats and ships laying next to a destroyed highway. I don't think nukes could have caused that .


I agree with the theory that it was a giant volcano. It would explain the earthquakes and the constant lack of sun light due to a global ash cloud, which explains the drop in temperature and the ash falling from the sky. The plants have probably died due to the lack of sunlight, the cold and maybe the falling ash. Since plants form the basis of an ecosystem then all of the animals have eventually died. I think it's believable that humans could survive for some period of time by scavenging from the remains of society (canned food, other humans, frozen bugs) but eventually all food sources would be consumed and all people would die. The old man (Ely) mentions that there were warnings of this disaster. I think that science can predict if a volcano is likely to erupt and also predict how large the eruption will be. The earthquakes caused by the volcano would also cause large tsunamis which would explain why there are boats and ships laying next to a destroyed highway.

  • Why do I have a specific memory of them encountering a deer with glowing eyes drinking from the poisoned water, making the deer meat no good to eat? Sorry to veer off topic, but am I thinking of another post-apocalyptic story?? May 4, 2017 at 21:55

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