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Earth is getting a black box to record doomsday for future civilisations

Where do you see yourself ten years down the line? “Happy, doing what I love—potentially with a family I’ve built with my partner,” was a no-brainer, 2012-esque answer to that question. Nine years later, we’ve realised (well, some of us have) that there are consequences to our own actions and that our happy-go-lucky forecasts were rather selfish. At a time when we’re torn between Musk and Bezos’ doomsday plans for the future, a new project is already bracing for the impact of climate change and other human-made perils.

Enter ‘Earth’s Black Box’, a giant installation backed with the aim of recording every step we take towards climate catastrophe—thereby providing a permanent record of our mistakes for future civilisations to uncover and learn from.

What is Earth’s Black Box exactly?

Made of three-inch-thick steel and cantilevered off granite, Earth’s Black Box is a giant monolith set to be built on a granite-strewn plain on Tasmania’s west coast. Beating Malta, Norway and Qatar for its geopolitical and geological stability, the island state of Australia will host information related to climate change, species extinction, environmental pollution and their eventual impact on health—similar to how black boxes record cars and flights in case of accidents and emergencies.

The structure, a collaboration between Clemenger BBDO, researchers at the University of Tasmania and artistic collective The Glue Society, will be embedded with storage drives and internet connectivity—all powered by solar panels placed on its roof. Housing batteries to provide backup power storage, an algorithm will be downloading and preserving a stream of real-time scientific updates and analysis surrounding climate catastrophe from the internet. Yes, even your doomer tweets—and potentially, this article itself—will be documented in the black box for the future to read.

“The idea is if the Earth does crash as a result of climate change, this indestructible recording device will be there for whoever’s left to learn from that,” Jim Curtis, the Executive Creative Director of Clemenger BBDO, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). According to him, the project is non-commercial with the guiding design principle of functionality. “Obviously it’s really a powerful concept when you say to someone, ‘Earth’s got a black box’. Because they’re like, ‘Why does it need a black box?’,” Curtis continued. “But first and foremost, it’s a tool.”

This tool, as noted by Jonathan Kneebone, co-founder of The Glue Society, is built to outlive us all. “If the worst does happen, just because the power grids go down, this thing will still be there,” he told ABC. The national broadcaster also added how the structure will be collecting two types of data:

1. Measurements of land and sea temperatures, ocean acidification, atmospheric CO2, species extinction, land-use changes, as well as things like human population, military spending and energy consumption.

2. Contextual data such as newspaper headlines, social media posts and news from key events like Conference of the Parties (COP) climate change meetings.

Upon a quick scroll through the project’s website, you’ll see a ‘recording’ button flashing in the top right corner. Although the construction of the box is still underway, the hard drives set to be placed inside the structure have already begun recording—starting with the COP26 climate conference held in Glasgow this year.

“The black box will record backwards, as well as forwards in time, to document how we got to where we are—pulling any available historical climate change data off the internet,” ABC noted, adding how the developers estimate there will be enough capacity to store data for the next 30 to 50 years with compression and archiving. Meanwhile, researchers are also investigating ways to expand this alleged capacity with effective long-term storage methods, including the inscription of steel plates. “This will enable us to be far more efficient with how each tier of storage is used and make it possible to store data for hundreds, if not thousands of years,” the team said.

What if someone does find it in the future?

Let’s imagine the worst has happened and another civilisation stumbles across the then-rusted structure. Now what? “It is impossible to anticipate who or what will find [it],” the developers explained. “But it can be assumed that it will not be of any use unless it is discovered by someone or something… with the capability of understanding and interpreting basic symbolism.” In short, breaking into the box’s interior—given its three-inch-thick steel casing—will already require some ingenuity. Whoever and whatever can pass that phase would undoubtedly be able to interpret basic symbols.

“Like the Rosetta Stone, we would look to use multiple formats of encoding,” the developers continued, outlining their explorations of including an electronic reader that stays within the box and will be activated upon exposure to sunlight. This could also potentially reactivate the structure “if it has entered a long-term dormant state as a result of catastrophe.”

The mission backing the project doesn’t end there. Once the black box is up and running, the compiled data bank will be accessible via a digital platform. “The plan is that people will also be able to connect wirelessly with it if they’re to visit the site,” ABC added. As of today, the project’s website has a dedicated section where one can view the information, articles and tweets the black box has already picked up in real-time. “There are other features we are playing with such as transmitting summary stats in longer intervals into space, and having [a] ‘heartbeat’ which communicates that the box is on and actively recording to on-site visitors,” the developers noted.

Apart from serving as a potential information bank—and ultimate proof of our existence—the project is therefore seeking to issue a sense of urgency about climate change. “It’s also there to hold leaders to account,” Curtis mentioned. “To make sure their action or inaction is recorded.” So even if Twitter jumps and labels this piece of innovation as a publicity stunt, it does not deny the fact that the structure has the potential of inspiring action with accountability for future generations.

“How the story ends is completely up to us,” its website reads. “Only one thing is certain: your actions, inactions and interactions are now being recorded.”

Scientists want to build a doomsday sperm bank on the Moon for safekeeping

In 2019, a study suggested that all-woman astronaut crews on long-term missions could populate new planets if sent with sperm banks in tow. The study shuttled up samples from 10 healthy donors and found no significant differences between the swimmers who had been given the ride versus those that had stayed on the ground. However, the researchers stated the need for further work to analyse the implications of long-term space exposure on the samples. Two years later, a bunch of scientists from the University of Arizona finally have an answer.

At the annual Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Aerospace Conference, the team presented a report titled Lunar Pits and Lava Tubes for a Modern Ark. The report proposed the establishment of a repository for reproductive cells and DNA samples from 6.7 million of Earth’s species, including humans.

Dubbed a “global insurance policy,” plans for the celestial ‘cum-locker’ involve storing these samples inside lunar lava tubes and caves. Discovered in 2013, the Moon is pockmarked with hundreds of these pits. Around 80 to 100 meters deep, they provide ready-made shelter from the surface of the Moon that undergoes major temperature swings. They also act as shelters from micro-meteorites and solar as well as cosmic radiations.

 

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The report also sketches out the concept of ‘SphereX’ robots which can be deployed to explore and identify pristine lunar pits that can be used to build the ark. Spotting danger signs like rough rocks and other debris, these modular robots are designed to survey potential pits by hopping and sending back accurate images.

The motivation to build a “modern ark,” according to the lead author Jekan Thanga, are factors like mass extinction and rapid loss of diversity in our ecosystem. “Earth is in an extremely fragile state due to human activity and other inexplicable phenomenons,” said the author, anticipating major threats like super-volcanic eruptions, nuclear wars, asteroids hitting Earth, global epidemics and climate change in the coming decades. Thanga also stated the alarming drop in honey bee population as one of the major factors pushing the world’s food supply to the verge of complete collapse.

“There is a need for a lunar ark,” the author continued. Given all these major cataclysms, he stated that the ark would be “more cost-effective than trying to protect all of the endangered species or building an entire artificial ecosystem to sustain them.”

But why a ‘lunar’ ark specifically? Why is the Moon cited as the ultimate destination for these vaults? In his presentation, Thanga outlined the fact that the moon is only 4 days away from Earth. Lacking enough water resources, the natural satellite is deemed unfit for living which further accelerates its potential for being subjected to better applications—species conservation and storage, for example. The 6.7 million species that are proposed to be housed in these vaults can be broken down into 5.1 million fungi, 0.3 million plants and 1.3 million animals. These reproductive cells and DNA samples would be stored at cryo-conditions hence “expected to survive hundreds of years.”

Doomsday arks are not a new concept. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault was set up in 2008 as an attempt to preserve a wide variety of plants during global catastrophes. Thanga admits that the seed bank is “definitely a step in the right direction” but is not a concrete solution given the fact that it’s constructed in the Arctic Circle—now susceptible to rising sea levels triggered by climate change.

“Humanity has a fundamental responsibility to protect the diversity on Earth,” concluded Thanga. With NASA’s third and fourth National Climate Assessment reports predicting up to 8 feet rise in global sea levels with intense hurricanes, droughts and heatwaves, the proposal of building an ark itself seeks to initiate a much-need call to action.

Lunar sperm banks may just be the ultimate backup and ‘dream cum true’ in hopes of repopulating our species following major catastrophes which we have summoned upon ourselves. And with World Backup Day round the corner, it may just be the right time to pledge that we back up our species along with all of the data on our computers.