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Earth is getting a blackbox to record our climate change activities, and it has already started listening

Earth is getting a blackbox to record our climate change activities, and it has already started listening

The black box in the landscape.

On a granite-strewn plain, surrounded by gnarled mountains, sits a giant steel box.

Incongruous in the landscape, much like Kubrick’s black monolith of 2001: A Space Odyssey fame, its alien presence suggests it was put there with intent.

And if those that discover it can decipher the messages it contains, they could get a glimpse of what caused the fall of the civilisation that was there before.

This is Earth’s Black Box.

It’s a tool, first and foremost.

Investigators are charged with finding the black box after an aeroplane crashes.

It is hoped that the recorded contents will be useful in helping others avoid the same fate.

And so it is with The Earth’s Black Box: a 10-metre-by-4-metre-by-3-metre steel monolith that’s intended to be built on a remote outcrop on Tasmania’s west coast.

Chosen for its geopolitical and geological stability, ahead of other candidates like Malta, Norway and Qatar, the idea is that the Tasmanian site can cradle the black box for the benefit of a future civilisation, should catastrophic climate change cause the downfall of ours.

If that sounds unhinged, it’s worth remembering that we’re currently on track for as much as This century’s warming is 2.7C.

Ask any climate scientist what happens when warming breaches 2C, and they’ll almost invariably tell you it’s not worth thinking about.

Many empires and civilisations of the past have fallen to less.

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What is this black box? Artistic installation? Academic experiment? Or something else?

The project is completely non-commercial, and the guiding design principle is functionality, according to Jim Curtis from Clemenger BBDO.

“Obviously, it is a powerful concept to say to someone, “Earth has a blackbox.” They’re like, “Why does it have to have a blackbox?” said Mr Curtis, who’s collaborating on the project with University of Tasmania researchers, among others.

“But it’s a tool first and foremost.”

It is designed to keep track of our actions

The box is planned to be made from 7.5-centimetre-thick steel, cantilevered off granite, according to Jonathan Kneebone, co-founder of artistic collective the Glue Society, Which is also involved.

He said, “It’s designed to outlive all of us.”

The box will be filled with a mass of storage drives and have All powered internet connectivity By solar panels on the structure’s roof.

Backup power storage can be provided by batteries.

When the sun is shining, the black box will be downloading scientific data and an algorithm will be gleaning climate-change-related material from the internet. 

The black box in the landscape.
The box will have a thickness of 7.5 centimetres. (Supplied: earthsblackbox)

It will collect two types of data, in general.

  • It will collect 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.
  • And it will collect contextual data such as Newspaper headlines, social media posts and news from key events such as the Conference of the Parties (COP), climate change meetings.

“The idea is that if the Earth crashes as a result of climate change, this indestructible recording device will be there for whoever’s left to learn from that,” Mr Curtis says.

Recordings are already underway

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.

And although construction of the housing structure itself is anticipated to begin mid next year, the hard drives have already begun recording, beginning with the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow in November this year.

Using compression and archiving, the developers estimate there will be enough capacity to store data for the next 30 to 50 years.

They are currently looking at ways to increase that capacity and to store more long-term materials, such as steel plates.

They stated that this would allow them to be more efficient in how each tier is used and make it possible for data to be stored for hundreds, if certainly thousands of years.

The worst is over. Now what?

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So let’s say we go the full Mad Max; climate change causes crops to fail year on year; ocean food-webs collapse; it becomes impossible to feed eight, nine, 10(?) billion people; hundreds of millions are displaced by rising seas; economies shrink and society as we know it goes over the falls.

Those who have discovered the black box — now the colour of rust, its solar panels long since dead — have got no frame of reference for what they find inside or how to decipher it.

What now?

“That is a [question]Developers say that they are still working on themselves.

“But it can be assumed it won’t be of any value unless it is discovered and understood by someone or something… capable of understanding basic symbolism.”

Access to the interior of this box via its three-inch thick steel case will require some ingenuity.

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Dustin Tingley.

Developers assume that anyone who can interpret basic symbols will be able to do so.

They said, “Like the Rosetta Stone,” that they would consider using multiple formats of encoding.

“We are investigating the possibility of including a electronic reader that stays in the box and will be activated upon sunlight exposure, as well as reactivating it if it has gone into a long-term sleep state due to disaster.”

I’m impatient to see the apocalypse.

A drawing of the black box.
The site will be accessible to the public.(Supplied: earthsblackbox)

Once the black box is up and running, the growing data bank will be accessible via a digital platform, and the plan is that people will also be able to connect wirelessly with it, if they’re to visit the site.

“We are also exploring other features such as sending summary stats at longer intervals into space and having [a] “heartbeat” that communicates that the box is on and actively recording to on-site visitors,” the developers said.

The project still needs to pass official planning approval and community consultation but David Midson, general manager of West Coast Council, which oversees the region where the project is slated to be built, says he’s a “big supporter” of seeing it happen.

Mr Midson says regional places like the west coast of Tasmania often don’t get the credit they deserve for their role in tackling climate change, and he hopes this project might help change some perspectives.

He said, “I think it’ll really build on the artistic and cultural aspects of the west coast.”

The location, between Strahan and Queenstown, is remote enough to offer some insulation from sabotage, but accessible enough for those who want to see it, according to the developers.

“It takes a good four hours from Hobart, [but] it is something you’d be able to stop your car and go look at,” Mr Kneebone said.

And while it’s intended as a blueprint for a post-apocalyptic society of what not to do, it’s also hoped that a complete recording of political and business leaders’ actions on climate change might have an impact right now.

“When people know they’re being recorded, it does have an influence on what they do and say,” Mr Kneebone said.

It’s tempting to write this project off as an indulgence in climate alarmism.

But while most people don’t get onto an aeroplane thinking it’s going to crash, that’s not a reason to forgo a black box.

Editor’s Note: (16/12/21): This story has been amended to clarify that this project has yet to receive planning approval from the local council.

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