Holiday Hell is the sixth episode of season two of Life After People: The Series. It originally aired on February 9, 2010.
Throughout history, mankind marked the passing of time with special holidays, days of celebration, places of escape. But now, the party is over.
1 DAY AFTER PEOPLE - It's still Christmas at Detroit's Always Christmas Store. The lights sparkle, the animated Santas and snowmen sing carols. In the time of humans, Christmas spawned it's own economy. Americans spent $154 billion in Christmas every year. We imported nearly half a billion dollars worth of Christmas ornaments alone. That's more than the cost to launch the Space Shuttle. The most iconic symbol of the season was the Christmas tree. But by the 21st century, more than 60% of families put their presents under trees made of aluminum or plastic. Because of the chemistry of their main ingredient, plastic trees are destined for a long life after people. PVC is better known as vinal, the same material that made record albums and gave automobiles that new car smell.
Another artifact of Christmas is the traditional holiday food that was both beloved and reviled: the fruitcake. Invented in the Middle Ages, and popularized in Victorian England, fruitcakes were built to last. A densely packed loaf that didn't need to be refrigerated. It was often joked that fruitcakes will last forever. But because of one key ingredient, perhaps it's not a joke at all.
The twinkling Christmas lights dim, as the power grid fails.
2 DAYS AFTER PEOPLE - Another Christmas icon is in trouble: reindeer. Although they may seem like a Christmas invention, reindeer are a real domesticated species that live across Earth's polar regions. In places like Alaska, they were bred for milk, meat and even for puling sleighs. How they became part of the Christmas story isn't entirely clear, but many believe the image of Santa's sleigh being pulled by flying reindeer evolved from pagan images of the norse god Thor with his sky chariot being pulled by flying goats. There are over 30 thousand domesticated reindeer in Alaska alone. But now, with no humans to care for them, there is a threat looming nearby. Will these reindeer live to see another Christmas?
3 DAYS AFTER PEOPLE - Another holiday animal also faces though times. Turkeys wander hungrily in their pens. In the time of humans, turkeys were an essencial part of american culture. In fact, founding father Benjamin Franklin wanted the turkey, not the bald eagle, to be the national bird. By the 21st century, american farms were producing over 270 million turkeys per year. 46 million of them are destined to be eaten for thanksgiving dinner. With people gone, these turkeys have avoided the axe, but something humans have done to make turkeys more appealing will also seal their fate. Selected breeding has created a turkey with massive breasts, that meat consumers demand, but threatens supply. The turkey's breasts are too big too allow them to fly. Too big for males too even be able to mount their mates. This generation of thanksgiving turkey may be the last.
1 WEEK AFTER PEOPLE - Steel roller coasters that once echoed with screams are now silent. Theme parks were one of the world's favourite holiday destinations. Roller coasters first appeared in America in the 1880's, and for nearly a century, all coasters were wooden. Although the first steel coaster was built in 1959, it wasn't until the 1970's that a breakthrough in engineering resulted in the birth of the extreme coaster. Looping inverted Zero G scream machines like the Silver Bullet at Knott's Berry Farm in Southern California. The extreme coaster relied on high engineered steel. Adding as little as half a % of carbon can make steel 2 to 3 times stronger. But even the toughest steel has an ancient enemy: rust. Now, without maintenance, a tiny scratch lets rust begin on the exposed steel.
Not far away, a bizzare holiday oasis flourishes in the barren desert. Golf course fairways glisten, water fountans spray, and power still flows in the getaway of the stars: Palm Springs, California. Despite being placed in a barren desert, Palm Springs was crowded with more golf courses per square mile than any other place in America. But now, the golf course sprinklers keep the fairways lush and inviting for no one.
There's another bizzare human artifact towering over the desert floor: it is the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. In the time of humans, it was a tourist attraction that stretched a mile across 5 steel towers, from the desert floor to a mountain peak 8500 feet above sea level. But now, the car sits empty 200 feet in the air, swinging in a breeze overlooking the vacant resort city.
The traffic lights still blink, and the air conditioners still hum in Palm Springs, because much of the power is still on, due to the city's reliance on a massive forest of wind turbines. 4000 of them still spin just outside the resort city. As long as wind pushes the blades, electricity keeps pumping out. These windmills appear very simple, but looks can be deceiving. But high tech demands high maintenance. One week after people, their blades still spin, generating thousands of kilowatts every hour, every day, every time the wind blows.
But just over the horizon, the winds of destruction are beginning to howl.
1 MONTH AFTER PEOPLE - In a series of steel sheds and concrete bunkers in rural Pennsylvania, thousands of pounds of explosive power sit idle in a fireworks factory. In the time of humans over 200 million pounds of fireworks were set off anually. That's twice the explosive power of the nuclear bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. But now, those fireworks await a celebration that will never come. Are these explosives in any danger of going off? It happended at a fireworks factory in Denmark in 2004, killing one person, injuring 17 and damaging over 200 houses. The final explosion resembled na nuclear mushroom cloud. In America, regulations require smaller buildings, each containing smaller amounts of explosives, to prevent a massive explosion like the one that happended in Denmark. One month after people, the fireworks and gunpowder lie dormant behind blast walls and their bunkers. There will be no fireworks displayed this year, atleast not yet...
In Alaska, these domesticated reindeer are struggling to survive without their human masters. And the domesticated reindeer are about to come in contact with their larger wild cousins: the caribou. Reindeer and caribou are actually the same species, but with one key difference. Reindeer are domesticated, while caribou run wild. 900 thousand caribou range in massive migratory herds across Alaska. Although they aren't built to travel long distances, reindeer can help heeding, the call of the wild. Even in the time of humans, domesticated reindeer often dissappeared from alaskan ranchland, joining the caribou herds as they swept across the countryside. Now, without humans to tend them, the once sedentary reindeer will join the caribou herds, and face the challenge of a 3000 mile migration.
Further south, in Glacier Bay, Alaska, luxury cruise ships rock silently in the harbor. In the time of humans, hundreds of these ships sailed the inside passage from Vancouver to Seward, taking half a million visitors anually on a scenic holiday. But without maintenance, even the small pocket cruise ships face the creeping effects of Alaska's weather. As the snow piles up on the deck, sunshine and daytime warming creates a thick sheet of ice, covering everything from the portholes to the riging. It's eerily beautiful, but snow and ice build up creates a weight that a cruise ship was not designed for. For this ship, the voyage is over.
6 WEEKS AFTER PEOPLE - At the San Diego Wild Animal Park, the lions are getting hungry. A lion can go 2 weeks without eating, but it's now been over a month since their last feeding. The lions are so ravanous, they are willing to test the electrifying fence that surrounds their enclosure. To their suprise, they don't get a shock, since the power grid failed weeks ago. Now, the biggest obstacle is the moat. The moats are over 18 feet wide. But lions have been known to leap more than 30 feet. And now, they're free. But soon, they will expand their range in search of food. There is a new king of the urban jungle.
6 MONTHS AFTER PEOPLE - Some ski runs are beginning to look the way they did before man claimed them as is winter playground. But strangely, while some ski runs have already seen pine saplings sprout, others remain mysteriously free of growth, as if still being groomed by human hands.
1 YEAR AFTER PEOPLE - The wind turbine farms still tower over the desert outside Palm Springs, California. The steel towers face a worse enemy than rust: the wind itself. That's why these windmills were designed with automatic braking systems. To shut them down during extremely high winds. But what if those systems fail? It actually happended in Denmark in 2008. Now, after a year without maintenance, acres of power-producing windmills are vulnerable to the same fate.
20 YEARS AFTER PEOPLE - With the windmill farms destroyed, power went out long ago in Palm Springs. The once bustling resort town is eerily silent, it's golf courses returned to sand, it's hotels empty buildings. We know this, because just down the road from Palm Springs, is a place where life after people has already begun.
20 YEARS AFTER PEOPLE - High end hotels are only checking in vermin. Once lush golf courses have turned into acres of sandtraps. And luxury swimming pools are now empty cesspools. This is the fate of the vacation destination called Palm Springs. We know what Palm Springs might look like 20 years after people, because there's a place just like it, only 60 miles away, where it's açready happended. The Salton Sea is the largest lake in California. Conceived as a resort paradise for boaters, water skiers and vacationers, it was once called the next Palm Springs. Instead, it became an empty wasteland of foul smells, abandoned homes and acres of dead fish. The heyday of the Salton Sea was the 1960's and 70's. Vacation homes popped up like cactus blossoms. Crowds thronged the beaches, swimming, boating and wayer skiing during the day. And at night, siping martinis at the yacht club. Now, the crowds at the yacht club are only pigeons. The vacation homes lie open to the elements, and RV campgrounds look more like burial grounds. What happended to turn this lush oasis into an apocalyptic wasteland? It began in the 1970's. Masses of fish suddenly dying, floating to the surface by the thousands. The cause of the fish kills was agricultural runoff from local farms. Hydrogen sulfide is a gas that is as toxic as cyanide, causing extreme damage to the central nervous system, eventually destroying the ability to breathe. It was so deadly it was used as a poison gas in WW1. It's just as deadly today. The fish kills continue, then the birds that ate the fish also got sick and died. Residents claimed they could smell and taste in the air. People stopped coming to the Salton Sea. At it's height, the population of Salton Sea was around 15 thousand people, with thousands more arriving on weekends. But vacation homes were abandoned. Resort developments stopped in mid construction. RVs, boats, even the yacht clubs all left behind. Today, where thousands once lived and played, only a few hundred people remain in each of the tiny shoreside communities, surrounded by the ruins of vacation homes. Decades after being abandoned, the effects of water, sun and salt are clear. Like the people riping away dribbling away from the toxic sea, the structural elements slowly dissapear from the homes.
But in this desert of a future, time and nature may lead to a 4th of July display bigger than ever.
20 YEARS AFTER PEOPLE - Vines and trees have covered up or broken through the concrete and steel bunkers of what was once a fireworks factory. Fireworks were a dangerous way to celebrate. In the time of humans, on average fireworks injured nearly 10 thousand people a year. Now, it is late summer. Dry heat, and a wildfire begins to burn out of control through the woods. The fire reaches the edges of the fireworks factory. For a decade, water has dripped or flooded into the steadily deteriorating bunkers. Gunpowder easily absorbs water, but wet gunpowder takes on a strange ability: after it dries out, it becomes more volatile and unstable. The finely milled poder clumps together, burning less evenly, and sometimes exploding more powerfully. Now, flames lick through cracks in the walls, and the powder ignites. The fire spreads from bunker to bunker, where thousands of prepared fireworks lie dormant. These explosives were destined for over a 100 diferente fireworks displays, now, they all go off at once.
Across the country, real snow mixes with artificial flocking at Detriot's Always Christmas. Soil has built up on the floor of the showroom, grass grows in the aisles of decorations. Vines climb up plastic Santas and toy soldiers. And in a nearby aisle, fruitcake still rests. They owe their longevity to one key ingredient: alcohol, one of mankind's oldest disinfectants. The combination of rum or brandy with dense flour, actually creates an anaerobic environment, an oxygen free interior that inhibits micro growth. 20 years after people, the fruitcake shows no sign of decay, maybe fruitcakes will last forever.
But the classic Christmas reindeer long ago swept up in caribou migrations have dissapeared. While some have interbred with their wild caribou cousins, most died out quickly after people. Although reindeer and caribou are the same species, there's a fundamental difference that caused many of the females to drop out of the herd within the first year: reindeer have their calfs one month before caribou. The reindeer games are over.
50 YEARS AFTER PEOPLE - A mystery remains on the ski slopes. While some ski runs have completely reverted to nature, others are strangely clear, as if groomed just yesterday. The reason: slopes originally cleared without heavy machinery recover quickly. But those that were intensively engineered or graded, defied the return of nature. These ski runs will remain just as humans left them for a very long time.
In Southern California, a new top cat enjoys his spot in the sun. Having escaped from the San Diego Wild Animal Park, the african lions have spread out and adapted to their new environment. Lions can eat up to 75 pounds at one sitting. That's na entire baby calf from who's to head and a single meal.
And as the centuries march on, a unique ingredient hidden inside this extreme roller coaster will prove it's downfall.
80 YEARS AFTER PEOPLE - Outside Detroit, Michigan, at the Always Christmas Store, it's beginning to look a lot less like Christmas.
100 YEARS AFTER PEOPLE - The 150 foot tall curves of Knott's Berry Farm Silver Bullet are about to reach their breaking point. Incredibly, this coaster's doom comes from the inside, due to a suprising feature hidden in it's bones. To keep this noisy ride from disturbing the theme park's neighbours, engineers filledeach of the rails of the 1300 foot long coaster with sand. This actually cuts down the ride's decibel level by atleast half. But hairline cracks in the coaster's steel, after a 100 years of neglect, have turned the sand into a coaster killer. Water, trapped by the sand, speeds up internal corrosion in the rails, weakening the steel, including the bolts. Bolts snap, steel bends, and the entire track begins to wave crazily. This extreme coaster makes it's final plunge.
120 YEARS AFTER PEOPLE - The winter resort destination of Palm Springs has reverted completely to desert, where snowbirds and retirees once lounged by the pools. Sand, yucca and mesquite cover almost all remnants of civilization. Yet the Aerial Tramway still stands. 5 giant steel towers once supported the cable cars that ferried vacationers up 8500 feet. The steel has held up for over a century. But one thing will set up a catastrophic chain reaction: a constant steady corrosion at the base of each tower. The problema begins with the cable itself. But the constant steady pressure of a hanging cable car, and over a century of erosion on the tightly wound wires finally causes the cable to snap. It is the first of a cascade of catástrofes. The crashing gondola swings down into tower number 1, the rust weakened tower cannot withstand the impact, and it begins to collapse. 5 towers, connected by 2 miles of cable, pull eachother down the bedrock of the mountain, and fall in an avalanche of rubble, dust, and twisted metal.
130 YEARS AFTER PEOPLE - Nearly all signs of human holidays have been wiped off the face of the Earth. But like a ghost of Christmas past, the fruitcake lives on, protected by it's anaerobic mix of sugar, flour, and alcohol. In fact, the oldest recorded fruitcake in the time of humans was more than 130 years old. It was baked in 1878 by an elderly grandmother who died shortly after it came out of the oven. And the family couldn't part with it. In 2203, the baker's great grandson presided over s tasting of the cake, where it was deemed still edible.
Now, as fruitcakes continue to defy decay, throughout America, wild turkeys continue to roam. These are the descendants of mankind's thanksgiving turkeys, just not the ones eaten by modern americans. They are the lean and fast native breed that was eaten by the pilgrims at the first thanksgiving. The creature that Benjamin Franklin thought should bee the national bird lives on as a feathery reminder of holiday's past in a life after people.
In the next episode of Life After People, water, water everywhere, as the giver of life satisfies it's thirst for destruction. And if you're visiting this chilly, abandoned place, you better be packing the heat.