In the desert wastelands of western North America, a curious observer might witness mysterious formations of lights hanging in the night sky, tracing labyrinthine paths before jetting off into oblivion. But it is hidden underfoot and out of sight, beneath the rocky arid expanse of desert terrain, that an underground fortress may contain a great malevolence locked behind vault doors.
Deep beneath Yucca Mountain of south-central Nevada, construction of a nuclear waste repository was planned in the late 20th century to hold the collective nuclear waste of the United States: the deadly byproducts of numerous nuclear power plants and nuclear science research. Development of this underground vault has been shelved as of late, but the research that went into planning the difficult task of storing these malignant materials may yet live on in future projects of similar nature.
A segment of plans for the Yucca Mountain underground repository called for studies investigating the best way to warn future humans of the entrapped radioactive waste. These waste products would not decay to safe levels of radioactivity for at least 10,000 years, some not until one million years into the future.
This warning sent to our descendents, thousands of generations beyond the present, would need to contain the location of this deadly vault and the consequences of interference with its contents, whether intentional or unintentional. The message must instruct the future receivers to its purpose and clearly express the warnings. Additionally, this message must persist for millennia, transcend social or cultural shifts and survive any calamity that might damage or degrade the message our generation sends.
To meet this challenge, an interdisciplinary team of nuclear scientists, linguists and futurists were formed to develop different approaches. The proposals that resulted from the study each called for unconventional methods to transfer information across time scales longer than the history of human civilization. A successful method of communicating with the far future inhabitants of Earth may allow our current era to pass on not just warnings, such as those of nuclear waste repositories, but also words of wisdom and guidance or monuments to our accomplishments as a species.
A straightforward approach to warning of the dangers associated with the nuclear waste repository location would be to construct megalithic monuments around the site. These megaliths, like the ancient Stonehenge and other standing stones of human prehistory, would last far beyond any language, culture or religion. Engraving warning messages in various languages and pictographic symbols would supply the specifics of the monuments’ message of caution. Re-translation of the megaliths’ engravings into the languages of the present time would be required periodically to ensure the warning message is maintained.
Standing nearly six meters in height, the cryptic Georgia Guidestones assembled in 1980 in the rural American southeast, is a modern megalith that seems designed to withstand the assault of time. The continued anonymity of the monument’s sponsors only further mystifies the strange and sinister “commandments” that are listed in several modern and ancient languages. (Image: http://weburbanist.com)
Earth Orbiting Satellites
Earth orbiting satellites, powered by solar energy or nuclear reactors, could transmit via radio frequencies the location of the nuclear waste repository and the dangers of interfering with its contents. The satellites could remain in orbit for millennia and serve as an effective reminder to humans assuming they still possess means to receive and decode radio transmissions.
The Arecibo radio message (left) was transmitted to a star cluster 25,000 light years away with encoded pictographic messages that demonstrate the intelligence of its creators. The Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft each have a golden record on board (center), as well as a record player, with various recordings of messages from humans and sounds from Earth to serve as a greeting to anyone who might find it. The Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecraft contain a plaque (right) with pictographic images detailing the origin of the message and the species that sent it. All four of the Voyager and Pioneer spacecraft are currently drifting to beyond our solar system with these messages. (Images: http://www.nasa.gov, http://wikipedia.com)
Genetically modified plants could contain messages to future humans within their DNA. These DNA encrypted messages would be naturally propagated into the future as the plants grow, reproduce, and spread. This method requires future humans to have technology capable of decoding the messages hidden in the organisms’ genetic code.
Genetically modified plants have already become commonplace within the agricultural industry. With genetically modified plants that can survive drought, disease, floods and pests An encoded message within their DNA could persist for millennia. (Image: http://althealthworks.com)
Genetic Engineering and Folklore
Another application of genetic engineering would not require that future humans have the capability of decoding DNA. Domestic animals such as cats or dogs could be engineered to react visibly, such as changing fur color, to levels of radioactivity approaching deadly limits. This method of radiation detection would only depend on humans continuing to have contact with these domestic animals in the future, as well as correct interpretation of the visible signals of radiation. By propagating manufactured myths and fairy-tales to describe the function behind these animals’ color changes, and the inherent danger it represents, correct interpretation of these signals could be ensured to last generations into the future regardless of technological progress or regression.
Genetically modified animals have been used in medical studies as was this fluorescent cat for HIV research (left). When Japan was hit by the devastating earthquake and tsunami in 2011, residents of one area knew to avoid a certain hilltop when seeking higher ground. Local legend tells that the shrine that is on the hill (right) was built to commemorate the victims of a tsunami one thousand years ago. This legend corresponds with scientific and historical accounts of an earthquake in the region in 869. Living, breathing messengers combined with the collective memory of folklore, information could be conveyed to humans hundreds and thousands of generations from now. (Images: http://theguardian.com, http://latimes.com)
The Atomic Priesthood
An elite council made up of intellectuals, scientists, and historians could be tasked with maintaining knowledge of the dangerous nuclear sepulcher and associated technical information. This council would serve as an “Atomic Priesthood”, electing new members to replace the old and to carry on their wisdom. Rituals and myths would be created to help preserve this information using the model of religious traditions that transcend political and linguistic shifts. But this Atomic Priesthood could be plagued by the same traps that any elite group possessing concentrated knowledge may succumb to: tyrannical subjugation of the ignorant by the elite, conflicts arising from the desire to possess the esoteric knowledge, and fragmentation of the true message into competing factions.
The University of Bologna (left) and the University of Oxford (right) were both founded in the 11th century, are administered by councils of intellectuals and have remained centers of human knowledge for nearly a millennia. (Images: http://wikipedia.org, http://britannica.com)
Although the specific plans for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository have not come to fruition, these concepts of transmission of warnings to future generations from our own era may yet be brought into use especially considering other ecological and environmental dangers humans face now, or could face in the future. Climate change, excessive environmental pollution, groundwater depletion, genetic engineering and artificial intelligence gone awry, orbital debris, solar storms, meteor impacts, and remnants of nuclear, chemical, or biological warfare, might all call for warning messages to be sent to future generations of humans to either help them cope with the disasters and to continue to survive or to teach them lessons we have collectively learned as a species.
Though the most meaningful message we might be able to transmit to future humans is an apology, and well wishes that they have continued to survive and thrive despite our transgressions against them.
Yucca Mountain Johnny, the official US Department of Energy mascot for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste site project, guides students through the “Science, Society and America’s Nuclear Waste” online education program.