In autumn 2021, as leaders from across the globe converged on Glasgow to talk about the impact of human-caused climate change, a coalition of artists, architects and researchers in Australia devised a way to document the apocalypse. How? By storing data in a massive metal monolith in Tasmania, an island off the coast of Australia.
Known as Earth’s Black Box, the project, equal parts art installation and time capsule, aims to document the physical changes wrought by global warming — and humanity’s geopolitical response to them.
The installation’s name is a nod to a common aviation practice. Commercial airplanes and many private aircraft are equipped with a “black box” (otherwise known as a flight recorder), a mechanism that automatically logs important flight details like altitude, airspeed, time elapsed and equipment functionality. These boxes, which are usually bright orange rather than black, are designed to withstand extreme temperatures as well as immense amounts of force and pressure. They are sometimes the only objects that survive a plane crash intact, allowing investigators to reconstruct a timeline of what went wrong in the aftermath.
Earth’s Black Box draws inspiration from these mechanisms. The vault will be made from specially designed, 3-inch (76-millimeter)-thick reinforced steel, chosen for its resilience to fire and water damage as well as its general toughness.
Along with the University of Tasmania and an artists’ collective called the Glue Society, Clemenger BBDO, an Australian communications firm, plans to build the 33-foot (10-meter)-long vault in a remote part of western Tasmania. They chose the location for its relative geological and geopolitical stability.
“We believe it should withstand any foreseeable natural events,” says Jim Curtis, executive creative director at Clemenger BBDO, via email.
Unlike an airplane’s flight recorder, however, Earth’s Black Box is not meant to withstand total planetary destruction — if Earth were to (somehow) explode, for instance, it probably wouldn’t survive. Instead, the artists and data scientists behind the project think of it as a way to log the progression of Earth’s current ecological collapse, which is already profoundly changing the environment.
“At its core, the box is intended to be a symbol of the catastrophic situation we find ourselves in,” says Curtis. “And importantly, it’s intended to hold our leaders to account by being an unmissable structure that reminds them that their actions — or inaction — will be recorded for generations to come.”
The box will record two types of data: primary and contextual. The primary data will consist of the planet’s vital signs, ranging from daily temperatures to atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration to sea level. The contextual data, which Curtis says will be drawn from sources like government documents, social media and pieces of journalism, is intended to show world leaders’ responses (or lack thereof) to the climate crisis.
Does Earth Need a Black Box?
Many scientists believe that humanity is at a climate crossroads. Our current 2 degrees Fahrenheit (1.1 Celsius) of global warming has already intensified storms such as hurricanes and tornadoes, led to massive regional droughts, and swamped some coastal cities with flooding, according to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s Sixth Assessment Report, released in summer 2021. Continued warming, especially exceeding 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius), will be catastrophic for billions of people globally, the report concluded. These data represent a “code red for humanity,” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a statement.
Curtis explains what prompted the project: “We are at a crucial juncture when it comes to fighting climate change, and it felt like there was a continued lack of accountability. A lot of talk, no action. And we thought, ‘What would happen if we recorded every commitment and step (or lack thereof) that was made? Would that help hold people to account?'”
However, given the pace of climate change, the worst of those effects probably won’t come for a few decades or centuries, according to most models. In the long term, Earth’s Black Box is about recording catastrophic climate change for future archaeologists. But its more immediate purpose as a work of art is to remind people in power that their actions are being recorded.
The project is reminiscent of other “doomsday” storage sites, such as the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which contains samples from more than 930,000 different varieties of agricultural crops, and the Frozen Ark, a U.K. initiative to freeze DNA from all of the world’s endangered animal species. Both these initiatives are designed to preserve global biodiversity in the face of mass extinction. However, climate change is beginning to threaten even these fail-safes, as the arctic permafrost they are encased in becomes less and less reliable. In contrast, Earth’s Black Box will not rely on cold temperatures to remain viable — it is less an ark and more a time capsule.
For now, the box’s creators still have a few bugs to work out before the project is complete. They are still deciding how to encode the data inside the box — they may end up storing it in several different formats, including binary code, The New York Times reported. Data will be stored on a giant solar-powered hard drive with enough space to collect information for 50 years.
Instructions for retrieving the data could be etched into the outside of the box, though the possibility of vandalism has made some involved in the project hesitant to include them right away. “It’s in Beta,” Michael Ritchie, one of the Black Box’s managing consultants, told the New York Times in December 2021.
Still, Curtis and his associates hope that the project will be up and running by mid-2022. They have already begun gathering data, as a burnt orange “Live Recording” scroll reminds you on the project’s webpage. “Only one thing is certain,” the site reads, “your actions, inactions, and interactions are now being recorded.
“How the story ends is completely up to us.”