Flight recorders referred to as “black boxes” have made flying dramatically safer by providing a record of what went wrong in air-crash disasters, leaving lessons on what to avoid in future. Now, an equivalent for the entire Earth has been announced.
"The idea is if the Earth does crash as a result of climate change, this indestructible recording device will be there for whoever's left to learn from that," Jim Curtis of PR agency Clemenger BBDO told The ABC.
Whether there will be any opportunity to avoid a repetition in case of disaster is doubtful, but the data the box is recording will also be available in real-time, perhaps contributing somewhat to a vital change of course.
Just as aircraft black boxes are not black – red or orange stand out better within wreckage – the so-called Earth’s Black Box's 7.5-centimeter (3-inch) thick steel walls will rust to brown. Its roof, however, will be covered with black solar panels that will allow it to keep operating for decades after any external source of power is long since gone.
Inside will be banks of computers, storage drives, and batteries that will download a mix of scientific data and media reports. The science side will focus on atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, temperature readings, ocean acidification, and species extinction.
The media component is already visible as a scrolling feed on the Box's website. The goal is to allow future historians, like in The Age of Stupid, to understand the decision-making process that so far considers the maintenance of a habitable planet less important than fossil fuel companies' share prices.
Western Tasmania has been chosen to host the box. The location was selected from a short-list based on a combination of factors both environmental and social. Naturally, the site needed to offer enough winter sunlight to operate the solar panels, an altitude beyond the rising seas the box will record, and security from random volcanic eruptions.
The founders also sought somewhere unlikely to become a future war zone. However, since part of the box’s purpose is to serve as a message, they sought somewhere accessible enough visitors could see it and be moved. Australian pride in inventing black box flight recorders may also have contributed.
Construction of the 10 x 4 x 3-meter (33 x 13 x 10-foot) box is to begin next year. But the computers are already operating at another location, providing a record of what did – and more importantly did not – take place at Glasgow COP26.
As long as the events the builders fear do not take place, anyone with an Internet connection will be able to access the data. Visitors to the site will also have wifi access, a feature that will keep operating even if the World Wide Web collapses.
Major problems remain, however, if this is to be more than an impressive art installation. Perhaps the most important is how the survivors of technological collapse set off by famine-initiated climate wars will access the computer data. After all, even modern archivists struggle to obtain readers for floppy disks only a few decades past manufacture. Engraving clues on metal disks, like the Voyager spacecrafts' golden records, has been mentioned but details remain to be decided.
The capacity of the box to store data is estimated to run out in 30-50 years, but expansion packs or technological upgrades may extend that.
Building such a large structure, let alone filling it with computers, will not come cheap, and no funding sources have been revealed, leaving open the possibility the idea is an elaborate stunt. Curtis claims the involvement of University of Tasmania researchers, but the only names reported are from the artistic collective The Glue Society. If it's real, however, and the idea captures the public imagination, redundancy might be achieved with more powerful boxes at other locations.