Sky's the Limit is the eighth episode of season two of Life After People: The Series. It originally aired on March 2, 2010.
For a creature so bound to the earth, mankind's dreams often took him to the skies. But what will now become of the engineering humans used to conquer the air? And what will seize control of the skies?
1 DAY AFTER PEOPLE - Air Force One, the most recognized plane in the world, sits empty on the tarmac of Andrews Air Force Base. 63 feet longer than the actual White House, it was built with the body of a Boeing 747. It's 2 kitchens, a soundproof conference room, and an entire bay of secure communications made Air Force One unlike any other plane in the world. This includes an array of top secret defense systems. There was a danger that the plane could be a target for missiles, so Air Force One packs an ingenious counter measure. If a heat-seeking missile locked on to the plane, a series of false target flares would shoot out, generating more heat than the engines themselves, and diverting the missiles. Air Force One was a state of the art fortress. In a life after people, a small malfunction can lead to a high flying failure.
2 DAYS AFTER PEOPLE - The highest mountain on Earth no longer welcomes any climbers. At more than 2900 feet, the summit of Mount Everest reached nearly as far into the sky as most commercial airliners. The final 3000 feet to it's summit was called the "death zone", because there's so little oxygen at this height, the human body could not sustain itself. With every ounce of energy needed just to survive climbers routinely left behind food tins, plastics, used oxygen bottles and almost anything that wasn't essential. In 1994, climber Brent Bishop organized a cleanup effort that removed 25 thousand pounds of trash from the mountain. But with 400 climbers a season, refuse continue to be a problem. And one day after people, the mountain's mighty glaciers conceal even greater secrets that aren't going to vanish into the thin air.
3 DAYS AFTER PEOPLE - Although some battery powered radios are still on, the broadcasts have ceased. Nearly 15 thousand radio stations once beamed news, talk and music across the United States every day. Now, with people gone, and the power failing, radio all over the nation signs off, forever. Yet there's one place in the American southwest, where the airwaves still crackle with the voices of man. New Mexico radio station KTAO is completely solar powered. And because of it's remote location, it was engineered for a computer to take over anytime humans weren't there. In the northern part part of the state, music and announcements beam across the land, without any human input.
4 DAYS AFTER PEOPLE - Airports that once thronged with passengers are vacant. And so is the air space around the world. In the time of humans, there were than 5000 flights in the skies above the United States alone at any given moment. Now, there are none. This happened only 4 times in modern aviation history. 3 times in the 1960's, when the military cleared the skies to test their radar warning system. And most recently, after the attacks of September 11th, 2001. For 3 days after 9/11, commercial flights were grounded. Scientists noticed a surprising side effect. Each day the planes were out of the sky, the average difference between the high and low temperatures across the United States increased by 2 degrees. Why? Normally, jet plane contrails spread out in the sky, creating a thin but significant layer of artificial clouds. Some atmospheric scientists believed this layer kept the Earth a little warmer at night, like a blanket, and cooler during the day, because it reflected some of the sun's heat. In a life after people, the absence of this artificial cloud cover could quickly change the climate on Earth.
1 WEEK AFTER PEOPLE - Seagulls and Canada geese flock to airports, taking advantage of the peace and quiet. In the time of humans, the greatest danger was an airplane. In the United States, bird strikes happened an average of 20 times a day. Most famously in 2009, when US Airways Flight 1549 suffered complete engine failure when it ran into a flock of geese just after takeoff. Only the miraculous landing by pilot Chesley Sullenberger prevented a catastrophic crash. But collisions between birds and planes didn't just start in the Jet Age. The first recorded bird strike was in 1905. The pilot: Orville Wright. Of all the aircraft that forever revolutionized the world of man, possibly the most famous was the Spirit of St. Louis. Piloted by Charles Lindbergh, it was the first plane to ever be flown solo across the Atlantic. Many believed this daring achievement convinced the public that the skies did indeed belong to mankind. One week after people, that plane is still aloft, because it hangs from the ceiling of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. Suspended by 3 cables that loop through ordinary bolts, how long before the renowned aircraft makes it's final flight?
1 MONTH AFTER PEOPLE - The tallest structure in North America still stands. It's not the Empire State Building, the Sears Tower, or Canada's CN Tower. It's the 2063 foot high KVLY-TV mast in North Dakota. Broadcast towers are usually placed on top of hills, mountains or existing skyscrapers. But here on the wide open Great Plains, building tall was the only way to reach an audience of 2400 households, spread out over more than 15 thousand square miles. The galvanized steel frame was engineered to withstand severe winter storms and 85 mile per hour winds. Now, the tremendous height of towers like this one makes them big targets for nature's arsenal. It has happened before.
6 MONTHS AFTER PEOPLE - Of all the plants growing on the Earth, the tallest is the coast redwood in northern California, at 379 feet. With a life span that can stretch for 2000 years, a tree that was a seedling when Jesus was born, could have been overflown by a plane in the 21st century. In the time of humans, wild land managers sought to protect them by suppressing forest fires. Now, with no firefighters to beat back the flames, wild fires burn unchecked,but redwoods are hard to kill. When fire burns their leaves, it triggers a signal in the trees to sprout new limbs and shoots. While their competitors are often destroyed, redwoods quickly flourish again.
And although man is gone, some other creatures from Earth are rocketing towards a new frontier.
1 YEAR AFTER PEOPLE - The plane that was Air Force One has begun to rust on the tarmac of Andrews Air Force Base. The tarmac was once kept pristine by a ground team that scoured the pavement for any debris before each flight. Now, brush has already begun to take it back. We know this, because there's an abandoned airport in Berlin, Germany, that already shows what life is like 1 year after people: Tempelhof. In 2008, the enormous terminal was closed to air traffic. But it was once ground zero for the massive air relief operation in history. 6 decades ago, these runways were a frenzy of air traffic. In one of the first major struggles of the Cold War, the Berlin Airlift. In 1948, Berlin was deep inside soviet occupied Germany. The city was divided in half between the soviets and the west. When a struggle for territorial control boiled over, the Russians blockaded west Berlin, cutting off all food and supplies by ground. West Berliners faced starvation or surrender. The west responded with the airlift. Fully loaded cargo planes roared in and out of Tempelhof every minute and a half, ferrying up to 13 thousand tons of food and supplies a day. After 10 and a half months, the soviets lifted the blockade. And Tempelhof became known as "the airport that saved the city". Shutdown in the 21st century, after a more modern airport opened outsider the city, it's ticket counters are empty. It's vast hallways are filled only with shadows, and wild grass obscures signs on the runways, that once made history.
3 YEARS AFTER PEOPLE - In the wilderness of Yellowstone National Park, a tiny flying creature that once terrified North America, has returned: the rocky mountain locust. They were a common sight in the 19th century. Swarms that were often 2000 square miles blackened the skies from the Rocky Mountains to the Mississippi River. Like a biblical plague, wherever they landed, the ravenous mass devoured every blade of vegetation. In 1875, one outbreak was so massive, it was deemed the largest single gathering of living creatures in recorded history. But in the late 19th century, settlers began farming on the insects fragile habitats in the river valleys of the upper Rocky Mountains. Within 25 years, the locusts disappeared. Only a few small pockets may have survived in pristine places Yellowstone National Park. 3 years after people, the population of a surviving pocket of locusts grows in the absence of humans. Might the ravaging swarms that once terrified settlers return?
5 YEARS AFTER PEOPLE - Although most planes are just slowly deteriorating, Air Force One has hidden potential for disaster. One of these is it's defense system called false target flares, which divert heat seeking missiles away from the plane. But the electrical circuits that trigger them were never meant to go unmaintained. When a circuit fails, it deploys the flares. The plant growth on the tarmac below becomes kindling for a massive blaze. And the plane itself has plenty of fuel to feed the fire. Unlike most planes, Air Force One's 50,000 gallon fuel tank were kept filled in case the president had to be flown out of harm's way at a moment's notice. But now, there is no one to move Air Force One out of harm's way.
8 YEARS AFTER PEOPLE - A spacecraft called Cassini silently orbits Saturn. 750 million miles from the Earth. In the time of humans, it generated countless revelations about the ringed planet and our Solar System. Now, it is quite alone in the frigid void of outer space. Well, not quite alone. They are called extremophiles. These hardy bacteria were believed to stowaway on all kinds of space vehicles. To make sure there be no unattended consequences from these microorganisms crash landing on the surface of another world, NASA planned to end Cassini's mission by incinerating it in Saturn's atmosphere. Now, without mission control to order it's demise, Cassini and it's tiny stowaways are on a voyage into uncharted territory.
10 YEARS AFTER PEOPLE - Airports are already crumbling. Many simply weren't built to last. There were some exceptions. Like the otherworldly LAX Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport. The architectural landmark was constructed in 1961, to resemble a landing spacecraft. It was called the Theme Building to usher in a Jet Age theme for the airport. By 2010, it was one of the few surviving airport buildings of it's era, because of a 2 year renovation that strengthened it to withstand the test of time.10 years after people, it's arches dominate the empty airport. And it will continue to endure, because of a surprising form of protection that will keep it safe from nature's most powerful forces.
But there is no protection for the buildings of a little known enclave that once safeguarded North America from an airborne Armageddon. Now, it faces an apocalypse of it's own.
10 YEARS AFTER PEOPLE - The places that once protected mankind from nuclear destruction now face destruction of their own. It's a future that has already happened, here, at Edgar Radar Station. Edgar looked like an ordinary town, but the entire site was built in 1952 for one sole reason: to scan the skies for an airborne apocalypse. Situated about 80 miles north of Toronto, Canada, Edgar was large enough to be a self-contained town, and self-sufficient as a matter of security. More than 300 people lived and worked on the base that hummed with daily life. Now, stools at the stations snack bar sit long empty. A tree branch sprawls across the roof of an abandoned home. The floor of the old gym is in ruins. And some buildings have already been entirely demolished. The entire enclave was built to support a single technology: radar. It scoured the northern skies 24 hours a day, for an attack by soviet planes laden with atomic bombs. Radar's electromagnetic waves could pierce the sky for some 200 miles. If a plane was in that radius, waves would bounce back from it, providing critical information about where the plane was, and how fast it was flying. That capacity made Edgar part of the first early warning system. But it also put the base near the top of the enemy target list. Life at Edgar was always on edge. For 12 years, Edgar's radar searched the skies. In 1964, the station was made obsolete by a longer range radar needed for a new threat: intercontinental missiles. Over the years, as attack times shrank from hours to minutes, the job of advanced warning rose to the ultimate vantage point: Satellites in outer space. Although the radar operations at Edgar were removed, the remainder of the base was used by civilians until 1999, when it was closed for good. 10 years of decay has taken it's toll. The movie theater has an audience of none. A children's playground is conceding it's turf to nature. The single women's dorm has long been empty. It's entryway has faded, but not the memories of what once happened here. The gymnasium that was Edgar's home court is now home to birds. Guileless celebrations once held here are but distant memories. Now, the floors have buckled, almost beyond recognition. The community that once watched the skies for an attack is now under assault from above. In this new war, the buildings of Edgar are defenseless.
As life after people continues, what secret will be revealed on the highest mountain in the world?
15 YEARS AFTER PEOPLE - Powered by the sun, the radio station KTAO broadcasts some of the last human voices to be heard on the land. But inside the computer that automatically plays the music, the bearings of the cooling van grind to a halt. Across the windswept hills of the southwest, birds still chirp, coyotes howl, but as the station computer overheats, the music of mankind falls forever silent.
20 YEARS AFTER PEOPLE - The Cassini spacecraft continues to orbit Saturn. But Saturn also has more than 50 moons, making any orbit fraught with peril. Now, the spacecraft smashes into one of these moons. It should be the last of Cassini, but this moon has something that was never expected in the frigid depths of space around Saturn.
30 YEARS AFTER PEOPLE - On the distant horizon of the prairie, a dark cloud blacks out the sun. Within minutes, a frenzy crush of insects from a swarm big enough to cover the entire state of Delaware pours out of the sky. Once so few in numbers many scientists believed they were extinct, the rocky mountain locust has returned. The Lazarus Effect is when any species thought to be gone forever is found, as if it came back from the dead. The return of the locusts is tied to their cousins that live just outsider Yellowstone Park: grasshoppers. In a life after people, grasshoppers are no longer controlled by pesticides, and their numbers explode. Birds that kept locusts in check for decades, now gorge on grasshoppers instead. For the first time in more than a century, locusts flourish. And when it's they sense their territory is becoming overcrowded, that instinct tells them to take to the air in mass, in search of more food. 30 years after people, the rocky mountain locusts swarms into the skies of the American Midwest, once again.
35 YEARS AFTER PEOPLE - Some of the highest glaciers in the world inch down Mount Everest. Entombed within the ice, is refuse that climbers once tossed away. They believed the colossal ice would crush it to smithereens. 35 years after people, a length of rope with a climber's gloves still curled around it, emerges from the glacial ice. But the frozen citadel has yet one more secret inching it's way down the mountain.
50 YEARS AFTER PEOPLE - The KVLY tower, the tallest structure in North America, still soars the equivalente of more than 150 stories into the North Dakota sky. It was built to withstand almost all forms of extreme weather, except severe ice and wind. Just like the second tallest structure in North America, the TV tower of a sister station, KXJB. Less than 10 miles away, it was just 3 feet shorter. In April, 1997, when a severe ice storm struck, the fierce wind and weight of the ice sent the second tallest structure crashing to the ground. 5 decades after people, an ice storm blows in again, buffeting the nearly 900 thousand pounds of tower. As the ice builds up, it adds hundreds of thousands of pounds to the structure. The huge stress of the extra weight sheers section bolts right off, snapping the tower in the middle. The top of the tower plummets for more than 10 seconds, and can accelerate to nearly 250 miles an hour before smashing into the earth. It's reign as the tallest structure on the continent is cut short.
Across the country, the Spirit of St. Louis rocks in the wind and whistles through the National Air and Space Museum. In 1976, curators had the plane carefully inspected. Apart from minor rust and small tears in the cotton fabric of the fuselage, the aircraft was perfectly fit to fly. The weakness now is not with the plane, but the system that holds it aloft. The 3 cables and clamps that secure it to the ceiling are strong enough to hold 5 times the weight of the plane, but the cables loop through standard steel bolts never designed to withstand decades rocking in the wind. Exposure to the elements, combines with the chafing of the cable, to weaken the bolts, until each fails. The plane that so sensationally opened the doors to global air traffic makes one final plunge.
The fate of high-flying relics is just one of civilization's many falls. Yet one otherworldly crash will plant some shocking new seeds.
125 YEARS AFTER PEOPLE - The only two buildings remaining at the Los Angeles Airport, are the steel-reinforced control tower, and the LAX Theme Building. In the time of humans, seismologists discovered a major fault line just a few miles away. They calculated that the odds of a massive quake were just 1 in 8 in the next 125 years. As a part of the overhaul of the Theme Building in 2010, engineers installed 1.2 million pounds of steel in rubber rollers to counteract the devastating shock-waves of a quake. Called a mass damper, these systems are typically placed underneath or inside buildings, but the space age architecture of the Theme Building made that unworkable. Instead, it became the first building in North America with a mass damper on the roof. 125 years after people, when a violent 6.5 quake strikes at dawn, the mass damper saves the Theme Building, leaving it the only structure at the airport still standing.
5000 YEARS AFTER PEOPLE - A glacier on Mount Everest is in a Spring melt once again. What thaws is a shocking remnant: the frozen corpse of a climber. We know humans can be preserved in glaciers, because of Oetzi the Iceman. He was found on a melting snow-pack in the Italian Alps in 1991, some 5300 years after he died. His body had been so perfectly preserved, that scientists could even determine what he had eaten for his final 2 meals, from the continents of his stomach. Of the more than 180 climbers who died on Everest, as many as 50 were never recovered. Now, the sun and flow of glacial ice have freed one climber, but there are no scientists to greet him. Only water and bacteria, that make quick work of his remains.
2 MILLION YEARS AFTER PEOPLE - The Cassini spacecraft is long gone, but it's stowaways have flourished. Because the moon they smashed into was a very special one called Enceladus. It is one of the few places in the Solar System believed to have liquid water.
Where humans reached for the sky, it appears that the sky was not in fact the limit. Cold, dark space has proven surprisingly open to Earth's most unstoppable force: life.
In the next episode, Life After People goes underground and underwater. From NORAD's secret mountain headquarters, to a bizarre underground mine, how will the underworld change when man is gone? And what secrets will be revealed when we unearth the Titanic of the West?