Every time new climate research is published, news headlines are posted or tweets are shared, a giant steel box perched on a granite plain in the Australian state of Tasmania will be recording it all.
With its thick steel walls, battery storage and solar panels, the developers of “Earth’s Black Box” say the city bus-sized structure will be indestructible to the climate crisis itself and is meant to outlive humans.
Eventually, its creators hope, the black box will tell future civilizations how humankind created the climate crisis, and how we failed or succeeded to address it.
“The box will act as an indestructible and independent ledger of the ‘health’ of our planet,” Jonathan Kneebone, artist and director of the artistic collective Glue Society, which is involved with the project, told CNN. “And we hope it will hold leaders to account and inspire action and reaction in the broader population.”
While the box’s construction won’t yet be completed until next year, hard drives have already begun recording algorithm-based findings and conversations since the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, in November.
“Earth’s Black Box will record every step we take toward this catastrophe,” write the makers behind the project, including University of Tasmania researchers and a marketing communications company, Clemenger BBDO. “Hundreds of data sets, measurements and interactions relating to the health of our planet will be continuously collected and safely stored for future generations.”
The steel monolith will document all climate-related conversations and artifacts from the past, present and future including land and sea temperature changes, ocean acidification, the amount of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere, human population, energy consumption, military spending, policy changes and more.
According to its makers, the box will be packed with storage drives and will constantly be downloading scientific data from the internet, which will be powered by the structure’s solar panels and battery storage.
Developers estimate the black box has the capacity to store enough data for the next three to five decades, and are continuing its research to grow its storage capabilities beyond story archiving and data compression.
Kneebone said the creators are still trying to figure out who would be able to use the box in the far-off future, since gaining access to it is designed to be difficult and would require advanced technologies.
Much like the Rosetta Stone, he said, they plan to use multiple formats of encoding including mathematical symbolism for their longer-term analogue steel plate inscriptions, which would include instructions necessary to decode the box by whoever uncovers it.
“It is impossible to anticipate who or what will find [the box], but it can be assumed that it will not be of any use unless it is discovered by someone or something that is intelligent and civilized, with the capability of understanding and interpreting basic symbolism,” he said.
The younger generations may stand to benefit from the project by using it to find solutions, since they are the most threatened by climate change-fueled catastrophes in the future such as landscape-altering wildfires, historic drought, blistering heat waves, and deadly floods that continue to worsen each year.
“It is a very creative way of approaching what’s potentially the most disastrous outcome of the climate crisis by essentially creating this ‘doomsday vault’ for [climate] data,” Vladislav Kaim, a young climate activist from Moldova who is among the UN Secretary-General’s Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change, told CNN.
A recent analysis from the watchdog Climate Action Tracker warned that under current policies — not proposals, but rather what countries are actually doing — the world is on track for a 2.7 degrees Celsius of warming above pre-industrial levels. Scientists have said the planet should stay under 1.5 degrees to avoid the worst consequences of the climate crisis.
Developers of the black box say it could hold politicians and corporate leaders accountable on how they tackle the changing climate.
“To me, it shows the extent to which there is no consistency in the climate space to trust politicians on anything they say,” Kaim said. “It sends a very strong message that the real black box here is in the minds of the politicians who had all the levers required to avert the catastrophe but decided to keep passing the buck until it was too late.”
Once the black box is activated, the library of climate data will become accessible through an online platform. Visitors will also be able to wirelessly connect to the box, which will be located at a remote site between Strahan and Queenstown in Tasmania.
“We are exploring the possibility of including an electronic reader that stays within the box and will be activated upon exposure to sunlight, also reactivating the box if it has entered a long-term dormant state as a result of catastrophe,” Kneebone said.
As the climate crisis persists, the box may provide a blueprint to a solution many years from now.
“How the story ends is completely up to us,” the developers write. “Only one thing is certain, your actions, inactions, and interactions are now being recorded.”
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