Author Topic: Forbidden Future Archaeology  (Read 1969 times)

Devious Viper
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Forbidden Future Archaeology
« on: September 12, 2006, 05:26:37 AM »
Future Be Warned: Keep Out!

Sep, 07, 2006

A half-mile below the surface of the New Mexico desert, the federal government is interring thousands of tons of monstrously dangerous leftovers from its nuclear weapons program - plutonium-infested clothing, tools and chemical sludge that will remain potentially lethal for thousands of years to come.

It may be safely secured now, but how to keep our descendants centuries in the future from accidentally unearthing it?

Click here for images of the WIPP and proposed warning systems.
That's the question posed by the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, the nationís only underground repository for military-generated radioactive waste.

To address it, the Department of Energy convened a conclave of scientists, linguists, anthropologists and sci-fi thinkers to develop an elaborate system intended to shout "Danger!" to any human being for the next 10,000 years - regardless of what language they speak or technology they use.

The resulting solution: an unprecedented and epic scale monument that's expected to take the next three decades and as much as $1 billion to complete. "Basically, we just want to make sure society doesnít forget we're here," says Roger Nelson, WIPP's chief scientist.

It's going to be pretty obvious that something is there under the scrublands near Carlsbad. The waste site will be surrounded by a four-mile outer fence of dozens of 25-foot, 20-ton granite markers engraved with multi-lingual and pictographic warnings.

Inside that perimeter will be a massive earthen berm 33 feet high, forming a rectangle matching the footprint of the underground site.

The berm will be implanted with magnets and radar reflectors to make it obvious that itís not a natural formation. A structure in the center of the space and two subterranean rooms will hold detailed information on the facility, and hundreds of super-hard disks printed with pictographic danger signs will be scattered throughout its 120 acres.

Construction of the full Stonehenge-like structure wonít start until WIPP is filled up, sometime in the mid-2030s. At that point, the underground site will be sealed and guarded for the next 100 years.

Prep work, however, is already underway.

"We looked at what messages had come from deep in time to the present, like the pyramids," explains David B. Givens, an anthropologist specializing in non-verbal communication who helped conceive the warning system. "It boils down to stones," he says - the only medium so far to have established a track record of retaining messages for as long as 5,000 years.

Thatís a good start, but still not enough. Scientists at WIPP are currently conducting tests to figure out whether they can develop materials that might last even longer.

Then there's the question of how to make the message itself comprehensible. Centuries from now, any modern language is likely to be as hard to understand as pre-medieval Pictish.

"Egyptian hieroglyphics lasted thousands of years, but it took us years of research to decipher them," says Givens. "We want ours to be self-explanatory."

That means pictures, as well as words.

The next step will be testing various pictograms on people from far-flung cultures to find some that are as universally legible as the "man" sign on an airport restroom.

Still, given the infinite unknowns of what society might look like millennia from now, there's every chance none of this will work - and might even backfire.

"The pyramids were designed to keep people out, but wound up attracting them instead," points out Don Hancock, a spokesperson for the Southwest Research and Information Center, a New Mexico environmental group.

That's a particular concern, considering that there are probably large reserves of oil and natural gas underneath the waste site. "People are going to want to get to that, and markers are not going to keep them away," says Hancock.

Of course, there's one consolation. If the warning system doesnít work, none of us will be around to find out.