Fossil Cities

[Image: Art by Joe Alterio; view larger].

I’m thrilled to announce that BLDGBLOG and Wired Science have teamed up with Swissnex to host a live interview—free and open to the public—with University of Leicester geologist Jan Zalasiewicz, author of The Earth After Us: What Legacy Will Humans Leave in the Rocks?, from Oxford University Press.

The event will be from 7-9pm on Wednesday, December 17th, at Swissnex, 730 Montgomery Street, in San Francisco; here’s a map.

Zalasiewicz’s book offers a fascinating and sustained look at what will happen to the material artifacts of human civilization 100 million years from now, when cities like Manhattan are mere trace fossils in flooded submarinescapes, Amsterdam is an indecipherably fragmentary presence in the lithified mudflats of a new, future continent, and cities like Los Angeles and Zurich have been eroded away entirely by a hundred million years of rockslides and weather.

To quote an early chapter from Zalasiewicz’s book at length:

The surface of the Earth is no place to preserve deep history. This is in spite of – and in large part because of – the many events that have taken place on it. The surface of the future Earth, one hundred million years now, will not have preserved evidence of contemporary human activity. One can be quite categorical about this. Whatever arrangement of oceans and continents, or whatever state of cool or warmth will exist then, the Earth’s surface will have been wiped clean of human traces.
Thus, one hundred million years from now, nothing will be left of our contemporary human empire at the Earth’s surface. Our planet is too active, its surface too energetic, too abrasive, too corrosive, to allow even (say) the Egyptian Pyramids to exist for even a hundredth of that time. Leave a building carved out of solid diamond – were it even to be as big as the Ritz – exposed to the elements for that long and it would be worn away quite inexorably.
So there will be no corroded cities amid the jungle that will, then, cover most of the land surface, no skyscraper remains akin to some future Angkor Wat for future archaeologists to pore over. Structures such as those might survive at the surface for thousands of years, but not for many millions.

The book goes on to explore buried cities, flooded cities, and cities destroyed by erosion; the long-term traces of different materials, from concrete and steel to nuclear waste and industrial plastics; and the future magnetic presence of urban metals that have been compressed into the thinnest bands of underground strata. We’ll be talking about cities like New Orleans, London, Hanoi, and Shanghai; New York, Los Angeles, Cairo, and Geneva. What “signals” of their one-time existence will these cities offer in 100 million years’ time? About Mexico City, Zalasiewicz writes:

Mexico City has a good short-term chance of fossilization, being built on a former lake basin next to active, ash-generating volcanoes; but its long-term chances are poor, as that basin lies on a high plateau, some two kilometers above sea level. The only ultimate traces of the fine buildings of [Mexico City] will be as eroded sand- and mud-sized particles of brick or concrete, washed by rivers into the distant sea.

With visions of cities become not spectacular, vine-covered ruins but but vast deltaic fans of multi-colored sand, the book looks at the future geological destinies of everything from plastic cups to clothes.

Alexis Madrigal, from Wired Science, and I will also have five copies of Zalasiewicz’s book to give away to attendees, and there will be drinks and light food after the event, so it will be well worth coming out.

If you get a chance, please RSVP at the Swissnex site, so that they can keep track of expected visitors.

(With special thanks to Joe Alterio for the artwork!)

8 thoughts on “Fossil Cities”

  1. Interesting subject, would be nice to have a chance to hear at least some of it later if recording the discussion would be possible.

    I do have to say that the quotes make me wonder if the book is based solely on the basis of how built spaces that currently excist will be in the future? If that is the case, I find it a rather odd, as architecture isn’t something that simply stops. It’s like an organism that rejuvenates itself through surgery.

    Most likely that will be even more so in the future. We’ll have structures that build themselves, that re-organize their usable space with the change in ownership and usage of that space if so desired. So what’s to prevent a building that can adopt to its inhabitants from doing the same according to its enviroment? how much longer would such a building last? Could that actually be categorized as another form of life that would carry on our legacy long after we’ve ceased to be? Not Dead Cities (an album by Future Sound of London, picturing abandoned cityspaces by means of sounds) but Live Cities or even Migrating Cities.

    All of which kind of leaves me to wonder if the book in question is a work of fantasy in a future setting more than anything else. It’s certainly a topic worthy of exploring, no question about that. Just the setting that makes me wonder.

    On a mostly unrelated topic, this might be of interest:

  2. The great physicist of our time Stephen Hawking recently said that what he thought about the behaviour of black holes 30 years back is based on a key wrong argument. He said, “ I have been thinking about this problem for 30 years, but I now have the answer. What was the key argument at that time ? In 1976, he showed that when a black hole is formed, it radiates energy and starts loosing mass. This radiation gives no information about the matter inside the black hole, and once the hole disappears – all the information are lost with it. This brings in a serious paradox known as ‘black hole information paradox’. If information is totally lost it arises important practical and philosophical consequences. If this really happens, then ‘we could never be certain of the past or predict the future precisely. A lot of people therefore wanted to believe that information could escape from a black hole but they didn’t know how it could get out.’, commented the Lucasian Professor of mathematics at Cambridge to the BBC. He further continued that once a material body or radiation had fallen into a black hole ‘it has gone and lost for ever and the only information remained was its mass and spin.’ The professor claimed saying, “… some time ago I discovered that black holes are not that black after all. They give off what has been called ‘Hawking radiation’. Because of this emission black holes will lose mass and eventually evaporates completely. The Hawking radiation seemed to be random and featureless so it appeared that all information about what fell into a black hole was lost.” However this contradicts the laws of quantum physics, which describe the behaviour of the Universe at the smaller scale. These dictate that information can never be completely lost !

    So maybe you are wrong?

  3. good thing we have buried all that garbage, gives future occupants something to pick through, maybe

    and the various underground bunkers
    for various heads of states

    and nuclear waste
    thank goodness for nuclear waste
    forget me nots

  4. Would the pharaohs of our time be better off building their monuments on the moon?

    There would always be the risk of asteroid damage, but there wouldn’t be the surface dynamics and other geological processes to contend with.

    Rather than a structure on the moon’s surface, how about an “etching” large enough to be unaffected by a few dozen asteroid craters?

  5. Peter, the etching of the Moon you describe was also conceived in the late 1980’s by Jeff Kipnis. He proposed sending all the nuclear bombs up to the Moon and setting them off in one place to create a big “notch”.

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