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The World Without Us

Alan Weisman (2007)

 

Over the coming centuries, although there will be no metallurgists around to measure it, the pace at which aluminum pits and corrodes will finally be revealed: a relatively new material, aluminum was unknown to early humans because its ore must be electrochemically refined to form metal. (18)

If you were a desert dweller, the plastic components of modern life flake and peel away faster, as polymer chains crack under an ultraviolet barrage of daily sunshine. (18)

In New York, the European starling—now a ubiquitous avian pest from Alaska to Mexico—was introduced because someone thought the city would be more cultured if Central Park were home to each bird mentioned in Shakespeare. (30)

"These bridges are so overbuilt, traffic's like an ant on an elephant." In the 1930s, with no computers to precisely calculate tolerances of construction materials, cautious engineers simply heaped on excess mass and redundancy. "We're living off the overcapacity of our forefathers. The GW alone has enough galvanized steel wire in its three-inch suspension cables to wrap the Earth four times. Even if every other one broke, it would still stay up." (34-5)

Missing, however, are nearly all fauna adapted to us. The seemingly invincible cockroach, a tropical import, long ago froze in unheated apartment buildings. Without garbage, rats starved or became lunch for the raptors nesting in burnt-out skyscrapers. (36)

Corrosion has thickened the patina on bronze statues, but hasn't affected their shapes. "That's why we know about the Bronze Age," notes Manhattan art conservator Barbara Appelbaum. (37)

After the ice recedes, buried in the moraine and eventually in geologic layers below them will be an unnatural concentration of a reddish metal, which briefly had assumed the form of wiring and plumbing. Then it was hauled to the dump and returned to the earth. The next toolmaker to arrive or evolve on this planet might discover and use it, but by then there would be nothing to indicate that it was us who put it there. (37-8)

[Thomas Jefferson] was also fundamentally mistaken about the meaning of fossil bones: he was convinced that they must belong to a living species, because he didn't believe that anything ever went extinct. Although often considered America's quintessential Age of Enlightenment intellectual, Jefferson's beliefs corresponded to those held by many Deists and Christians of his day: that in a perfect Creation, nothing created was ever intended to disappear. (54)

The Desert Laboratory—originally the Carnegie Desert Botanical Laboratory—was built more than a century ago on Tumamoc Hill, a butte in southern Arizona overlooking what was then one of North America's finest stands of cactus forests and, beyond that, Tucson. For nearly half the lab's existence, a tall, broad-shouldered, affable paleoecologist named Paul Martin has been here. During that time the desert below Tumamoc's saguaro-covered slopes disappeared under a snarl of dwellings and commerce. Nevertheless, the fine old stone structures occupy what developers today consider prime view property, which they continually scheme to wrest from its present owner, the University of Arizona. (55)

The fate of sloths would provide what Martin believed was conclusive proof of a theory forming in his mind as data accumulated like layers of stratified sediment. Inside Rampart Cave was a mound of dung deposited, he and his colleagues concluded, by untold generations of female sloths who took shelter there to give birth. The manure pile was five feet high, 10 feet across, and more than 100 feet long. Martin felt like he'd entered a sacred place.
When vandals set it on fire 10 years later, the fossil dung heap was so enormous that it burned for months. Martin mourned, but by then he had been setting blazes of his own in the paleontology world with his theory of what had wiped out millions of ground sloths, wild pigs, camels, Proboscidea, 20 species of horses—60 entire genera of large mammals throughout the New World, all vanished in a geologic twinkling of about 1,000 years: "It's pretty simple. When people got Out of Africa and Asia and reached other parts of the world, all hell broke loose." Martin's theory, soon dubbed the Blitzkrieg by its supporters and detractors alike, contended that, starting with Australia about 48,000 years ago, as humans arrived on each new continent they encountered animals that had no reason to suspect that this runty biped was particularly threatening. Too late, they learned otherwise. (57-8)

"If Homo sapiens had never evolved," he says, "North America would have three times as many animals over 1,000 pounds as Africa today." He ticks off Africa's current five: "Hippos, elephants, giraffes, two rhinoceroses. We'd have 15. Even more, when we add South America." (59)

From his hilltop laboratory, Paul Martin looks over a desert city that grew along a river, the Santa Cruz, which flowed north from Mexico. Camels, tapirs, native horses, and Columbia mammoths once foraged on its green floodplain. When descendants of the humans who eliminated them settled here, they built huts from mud and branches of riverbank Cottonwood and willow-materials that quickly returned to the soil and the river when no longer needed.
With less game, the people learned to cultivate the plants they gathered, and they called the vilIage that evolved Chuk Shon, a name that meant "flowing water." They mixed harvest chaff with river mud to form bricks, and this practice continued until mud adobes were supplanted by concrete after World War II. Not long after that, the advent of air-conditioning attracted so many people here that the river was sucked dry. They dug wells. When those dried, they dug deeper.
The Santa Cruz River's desiccated bed is now flanked by Tucson's civic center, which includes a convention hall whose jumbo concrete-and-steel-beam foundation seems like it should last at least as long as Rome's Coliseum. The tourists of some distant tomorrow might have a hard time finding it, however, because after today's thirsty humans are gone from Tucson and from the bloated Mexican border city of Nogales, Sonora, 60 miles south, eventually the Santa Cruz River will rise again. Weather will do what weather does, and from time to time Tucson and Nogales's dry river will be back in the business of building an alluvial plain. Silt will pour into the basement of the by-then-roofless Tucson Convention Center until it's buried.
What animals would live atop it is uncertain. Bison are long gone; in a world without people, the cows that replaced them won't last long without their attendant cowboys to discourage coyotes and mountain lions. The Sonoran pronghorn—a subspecies of that small, speedy Pleistocene relic, the last American antelope—verges on extinction in desert preserves not far from here. Whether there are enough left to replenish the breed before the coyotes finish them off is questionable, but possible. (65)

[T]he most imperiled of all African species [is] the black rhino. About 400 remain in Kenya, down from 20,000 in 1970, the rest poached for horns that bring $25,000 each in the Orient for alleged medicinal properties, and in Yemen for use as ceremonial dagger handles. The estimated 70 Aberdares black rhinos are the only ones in their original wild habitat. (72)

In 1999, [David] Western described this to paleoecologist Paul Martin, father of the Pleistocene overkill extinction theory, while driving through southern Arizona en route to see where Clovis people finished off local mammoths 13,000 years earlier. Since that time, the American Southwest had evolved without big herbivore browsers. Martin gestured at the tangle of mesquite sprouting on public lands that ranchers leased, which they were always begging permission to burn. "Do you think this could work as elephant habitat?" he asked.
At the time, David Western laughed. But Martin persisted: How would African elephants do in this desert? Would they be able to ascend the craggy granite mountain ranges to find water? Might Asian elephants do better, since they were more closely related to mammoths?
"It's surely better than using a bulldozer and herbicides to get rid of mesquite," Western agreed. "Elephants would do it a lot more cheaply and simply, and they also spread manure around for grass seedlings."
"Exactly," said Martin, "what mammoths and mastodons did,"
"Sure," Western replied. "Why not use an ecological surrogate species you don't have the original one there?" Ever since, Paul Martin had been campaigning to return elephants to North America. (80-1)

In the underground city of Derinkuyu. . . . Some water was routed through cuff conduits to underground wineries and breweries, equipped with tuff fermentation vats and basalt grinding wheels.
These beverages were probably essential for calming the claustrophobia induced by passing between levels, via staircases so intentionally low, tight, and serpentine that any invaders had to proceed slowly, bent over, and in single file. Emerging one by one, they would be easily slain—if they got that far. Stairways and ramps had landings every 10 meters, with Stone Age pocket doors—half-ton, floor-to-ceiling stone wheels-that could be rolled in place to seal a passage. Trapped between a pair of these, intruders would soon notice that holes overhead weren't air shafts, but pipes for bathing them with hot oil. (110)

The surface was where they were bred to live and die, but one day when we are long gone, it is the underground cities they built for protection that will defend humanity's memory, bearing final—albeit hidden—witness to the fact that, once, we were here. (111)

The bulk of what's in landfills, he says, is construction debris and paper products. Newspapers, he claims, again belying a common assumption, don't biodegrade when buried away from air and water. "That's why we have 3,000-year-old papyrus scrolls from Egypt. We pull perfectly readable newspapers out of landfills from the 1930s. They'll be down there for 10,000 years." (119)

If those archaeologists were to follow the pipes several hundred feet down, they would encounter an artifact destined to be among the longest lasting ever made by humans. Beneath the Texas Gulf coast are about 500 salt domes formed when buoyant salts from saline beds five miles down rise through sedimentary layers. Several lie right under Houston. Bulletshaped, they can be more than a mile across. By drilling into a salt dome and then pumping in water, it is possible to dissolve its interior and use it for storage.
Some salt dome storage caverns below the city are 600 feet across and more than half a mile tall, equaling a volume twice that of the Houston Astrodome. Because salt crystal walls are considered impermeable, they are used for storing gases, including some of the most explosive, such as ethylene. Piped directly to an underground salt dome formation, ethylene is stored under 1,500 pounds of pressure until it's ready to be turned into plastic. Because it is so volatile, ethylene can decompose rapidly and blow a pipe right out of the ground. Presumably, it would be best for archaeologists of the future to leave the salt caverns be, lest an ancient relic from a long-dead civilization blow up in their faces. But how would they know? (133)

Unlike almost anywhere else on earth, New England's temperate forest is increasing, and now far exceeds what it was when the United States was founded in 1776. (147)

According to von Liebig, both horse and human bones from the Battle of Waterloo were ground and applied to crops. (153)

From 1964 to 1971, the United States doused Vietnam with 12 million gallons of Agent Orange. Four decades later, heavily dosed forests still haven't grown back. In their place is a grass species, cogon, called one of the world's worst weeds. Burned off constantly, it keeps springing back, overwhelming attempts to supplant it with bamboo, pineapple, bananas, or teak. (156)

Should some impetuous animal attempt the journey via Chunnel—the English Channel Tunnel, Le Tunnels sous la Manche—after human traffic ceases, it might actually make it. Even without maintenance, the Chunnel wouldn't quickly flood like many of the world's subways, because it was dug within a single geologic layer, a bed of chalk marl with minimal filtration. (171)

Although the Suez Canal had already severed Africa from Asia three decades earlier, that was a comparatively simple, sea-level surgical stroke across an empty, disease-free sand desert with no hills. The French company that dug it went next to the 56-mile-wide isthmus between the Americas, smugly intending to do the same. Disastrously, they underestimated dense jungle steeped in malaria and yellow fever, rivers fed by prodigious rainfall, and a continental divide whose lowest pass was still 270 feet above the sea. Before they were one-third of the way through, they suffered not only a bankruptcy that rocked France, but also the deaths of 22,000 workers.
Nine years later, in 1898, a highly ambitious Assistant Secretary of the Navy named Theodore Roosevelt found a pretext, based on an explosion (probably due to a faulty boiler) that sank a U.S. ship in Havana Harbor, to oust Spain from the Caribbean. The Spanish-American War was intended to liberate both Cuba and Puerto Rico, but, to the great surprise of Puerto Ricans, the United States annexed their island. To Roosevelt, it was perfectly positioned as a coaling station for the still nonexistent canal that would eliminate the need for ships sailing between the Atlantic and the Pacific to travel down the length of South America and up again.
Roosevelt chose Panama over Nicaragua, whose eponymous navigable lake, which would have saved considerable digging, lay among active volcanoes. At the time, the isthmus was part of Colombia, although Panamanians had tried three times to bolt from distant Bogota's fitful rule. When Colombia objected to the U.S. offer of just $10 million for sovereignty over a 6-mile-wide zone bordering the proposed canal, President Roosevelt sent a gunboat to help Panamanian rebels finally succeed. A day later, he betrayed them by recognizing as Panama's first ambassador to the United States a French engineer from France's defunct canal-digging company, who, at considerable personal profit, immediately affirmed a treaty agreeing to U.S. terms.
That sealed the United States' reputation in Latin America as piratical gringo imperialists, and produced—II years and 5,000 more deaths later—the most stunning engineering feat yet in human history. More than a century has passed and it is still among the greatest of all time. Besides reconfiguring continental landmasses and communication between two oceans, the Panama Canal also significantly shifted the economic center of the world to the United States. (174-5)

[Gutzon Borglum] even rendered Roosevelt's trademark pince-nez in rock—a rock formed 1.5 billion years ago, among the most resistant on the continent. According to geologists, Mount Rushmore's granite erodes only one inch every 10,000 years. At that rate, barring asteroid collision or a particularly violent earthquake in this seismically stable center of the continent, at least vestiges of Roosevelt's 60-foot likeness, memorializing his Canal, will be around for the next 7.2 million years. (181-2)

If we left this world tomorrow—assuming by some means other than blowing ourselves to bits—we would leave behind about 30,000 intact nuclear warheads. The chance of any exploding with us gone is effectively zero. The fissionable material inside a basic uranium bomb is separated into chunks that, to achieve the critical mass necessary for detonation, must be slammed together with a speed and precision that don't occur in nature, Dropping them, striking them, plunging them in water, or rolling a boulder over them would do nothing. In the tiny chance that the polished surfaces of enriched uranium in a deteriorated bomb actually met, unless forced together at gunshot speed, they would fizzle—albeit in a very messy way. (202)

Anything at Rocky Flats too hard or too hot to move was covered with concrete and 20 feet of fill, and will remain off-limits to hikers in the wildlife preserve, though how they'll be deterred hasn't been decided. At WIPP, where much of Rocky Flats ended up, the U.S. Department of Energy is legally required to dissuade anyone from coming too close for the next 10,000 years. After discussing the fact that human languages mutate so fast that they're almost unrecognizable after 500 or 600 years, it was decided to post warnings in seven of them anyway, plus pictures. These will be incised on 25-foot-high, 20-ton granite monuments and repeated on nine-inch disks of fired clay and aluminum oxide, randomly buried throughout the site. More-detailed information about the hazards below will go on the walls of three identical rooms, two of them also buried. The whole thing will be surrounded by a 33-foot-tall earthen berm a half mile square, embedded with magnets and radar reflectors to give every possible signal to the future that something lurks below. (208-9)

In the aftermath of Chernobyl's explosion and fire, coal miners and subway crews tunneled underneath Number Four's basement and poured n second concrete slab to stop the core from reaching groundwater. This probably was unnecessary, as the meltdown was over, having ended in a 200-ton puddle of frozen, murderous ooze at the bottom of the unit. During the two weeks it took to dig, workers were handed bottles of vodka, which, they were told, would inoculate them against radiation sickness. It didn't. (215)

The chestnut pelage of the musk ox is the warmest organic fiber known, with eight times the insulating factor of sheep's wool. Known in Inuit as qiviut, it renders musk oxen so impervious to cold that they're literally invisible to infrared satellite cameras used to track caribou herds. (220)

Archaeologist Arthur Demarest, a stocky, thick-moustached Louisiana Cajun: . . . "Indiana Jones swashbuckled through a mythical, generic Third World of swarthy people with threatening, incomprehensible ways, defeating them with American heroics and seizing their treasures," he says, mopping his thick black hair. "He would have lasted five seconds here. Archaeology isn't about glittery objects—it's about their context. We're part of the context. It's our workers whose fields are burning, it's their children who have malaria. We come to study ancient civilization, but we end up learning about now." (225)

Embalming was uncommon until the Civil War, when it was used to send fallen soldiers home. Blood, which decomposes rapidly, was replaced with anything handy that didn't. Often, it was whiskey. "A bottle of scotch works fine," allows Mathews. "It's embalmed me several times." (236)

Pine boxes have yielded to modern sarcophagi of bronze, pure copper, stainless steel, or coffins crafted from an estimated 60 million board feet of temperate and tropical hardwoods, felled annually just to be buried underground. (237)

The green burial folks prefer no liners, and coffins of materials that quickly biodegrade, like cardboard or wicker—or none at all: unembaImed, shrouded bodies are placed right in the dirt to start returning their leftover nutrients to the earth. Although most people throughout history were probably interred this way, in the Western world only a handful of cemeteries permit it—and even less, the green headstone substitute: planting a tree to immediately harvest the formerly human nourishment. (237)

One icon of Western culture that Olson expects to last long will be pre-1982 copper pennies (actually, they're bronze, containing 5 percent zinc). Today, however, the U.S. cent is nearly all zinc, with only enough copper to memorialize the color of money once worth its face value. (246)

In 1977, Carl Sagan asked Toronto painter and radio producer Jon Lamberg how an artist might express the essence of human identity to an audience: that had never seen humans. . . . Lamberg had only six weeks to think about that before launch. He and his colleagues polled world figures, semioticians, thinkers, artists, scientists, and science-fiction writers on what might possibly penetrate the consciousness of unfathomable viewers and listeners. (Years later, Lomberg would also help design the warning to trespassers of buried radioactive peril at New Mexico's Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.) (250)

In 1974, Frank Drake beamed a three-minute radio greeting from the largest radio dish on Earth, the 1,000-foot, half-million-watt Arecibo Radio Telescope in Puerto Rico. . . . The signal, Drake later explained, was about a million times stronger than a typical TV transmission, and was aimed at a star duster in the constellation Hercules, where it wouldn't arrive for 22,800 years. Even so, due to the subsequent outcry over possibly having revealed Earth's whereabouts to superior, predatory alien intelligences, members of the international community of radio astronomers agreed to never unilaterally expose the planet to such a risk again. (253)

Forest Rohwer agrees that it could well happen.
"Microbes don't really much care whether we—or anything else—are here or not. We're just a semi-interesting niche for them. In fact, there's been just a very brief period of time when there were anything but microbes on the planet. For billions of years, that's all there was. And when the sun starts to expand, we'll go, and it'll only be microbes, for millions or billions of years more."
They will remain, he says, until the sun dries up the last water on earth, because microbes need it to thrive and reproduce. "Although they can be stored by freeze-drying, and do just fine. Everything we shoot into space has microbes on it, despite people's efforts to not let that happen. Once it's out there, there's no reason why some of this stuff couldn't make it billions of years." (262)

Within the past two decades, shark finners must have been here. In Hong Kong, shark fin soup commands up to $100 per bowl. After slicing off their pectoral and dorsal fins, finners throw mutilated sharks, still alive, back into the sea. Rudderless, they sink to the bottom and suffocate. Despite campaigns to ban the delicacy, in less remote waters an estimated 100 million sharks die this way every year. (264)

"On the genome level," notes microbiologist Forest Rohwer, "the difference between coral and us is small. That's strong molecular evidence that we all come from the same place." (266)

Nine-hundred miles northwest of Palmyra, the next visible turquoise-ringed smudge of land rising from the blue Pacific depths is Johnston Atoll. Like Palmyra, it was once a U.S. seaplane base, but in the 1950s it . became a Thor missile nuclear test range. Twelve thermonuclear warheads . were exploded here; one that failed scattered plutonium debris over the island. Later, after tons of irradiated soil, contaminated coral, and plutonium were "decommissioned" into a landfill, Johnston became a post-Cold War chemical-weapons incineration site.
Until it closed in 2004, sarin nerve gas from Russia and East Germany, along with Agent Orange, PCBs, PAHs, and dioxins from the United States, were burned there. Barely one square mile, Johnston Atoll is a marine Chernobyl and Rocky Mountain Arsenal rolled into one-and like the latter, its latest incarnation is as a U.S. National Wildlife Refuge. (266-7)

As the saying goes, we don't get out of this life alive—and neither will the Earth. Around 5 billion years from now, give or take, the sun will expand into a red giant, absorbing all the inner planets back into its fiery womb. At that point, water ice will thaw on Saturn's moon Titan, where the temperature is currently -290F., and some interesting things may eventually crawl out of its methane lakes. One of them, pawing through organic silt, might come across the Huygens probe that parachuted there from the Cassini space mission in January, 2005, which, during its descent, and for 90 minutes before its batteries died, sent us pictures of streambed-like channels cutting down from orange, pebbled highlands to Titan's sand-dune seas.
Sadly, whatever finds Huygens won't have any clue where it came from, or that we once existed. Bickering among project directors at NASA nixed a plan to include a graphic explanation that Jon Lomberg designed, this time encased in a diamond that would preserve a shred of our story at least 5 billion years—long enough for evolution to provide another audience. (269)


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