Earth's Black Box


As the world searches for solutions to address climate change, one Australian team is planning for worst-case scenarios—including a world that outlives humans. The project? Earth’s Black Box, a solar-powered data storage device designed to not only withstand the effects of climate change, but—much like the black boxes used to record flight data in the event of a crash—chronicle actions that might lead to Earth’s demise.

Consider it part time capsule, part social art installation and part data science project. Communications firm Clemenger BBDO first came up with the idea, collaborating with researchers at the University of Tasmania, art collective The Glue Society and production company Revolver in Sydney, to turn the high-minded climate action concept into reality. Designed to last 10,000 years, the structure will gather measurements on everything from Earth’s average temperatures and atmospheric carbon dioxide to the human population, while also collecting contextual data such as news headlines, social media posts, and news from lectures and major events.

In some ways, the idea is similar to Norway’s Svalbard Global Seed Vault—one of PMI’s Most Influential Projects—the so-called doomsday vault designed to provide a backup supply of the world’s seed samples. But project leaders on Earth’s Black Box are focused on providing a record of events to any future inhabitants of Earth—and spurring action on the urgent steps required to address the climate crisis.

“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,” explains Michael Ritchie, managing director of Revolver, the company managing the project.

When choosing a site for the project, risk management was a primary focus. The team needed a location for the box that was geopolitically and geologically stable, with a relatively low risk of natural disasters that could compromise its integrity. So they chose a remote granite plain on Tasmania’s west coast, working with local landowners and councils to secure the land.

Once built, the structure must be able to endure whatever climate change throws at it. “We must ensure that the data we record is safe, secure and accessible for whoever—or whatever—finds it,” Ritchie says. With that in mind, the team will construct the 33-foot-long (10-meter) building—roughly the size of a school bus—with 3-inch-thick (7.5 centimeters) steel walls to protect its mass of internal storage drives. And it’s designed to function without human operators—completely self-powered by rooftop solar panels, with batteries for backup power storage. The result? An impenetrable vault of planetary data.

Construction of the massive steel monolith is set to begin in early 2022. But the hard drives are already recording data—with that part of the project kicking off at the United Nations COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, late last year. The team is also looking into upgrading the box’s disk-based storage system by 2030, expanding its capacity to store data for hundreds—if not thousands—of years. One possible solution? Each decade, data from disks might be encoded and inscribed in steel plates. With such a long timeline, the team has learned to be agile.

“There are questions that will have one answer today and a completely different one in the coming years as technology advances and we find new tools and processes,” Richie says. 

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