The Bodies Left Behind is the first episode of season one of Life After People: The Series. It originally aired on April 21, 2009.
This episode looks at the future of cities like Boston and Houston and their static structures after the disappearance of man and what will happen to the human bodies that are buried, embalmed, and mummified, as well as the fate of the Immortality Drive inside the International Space Station, cryonically frozen bodies and human embryos, and parrots. This episode also examines the fate of the Astrodome, the Bunker Hill Bridge, the John Hancock Tower, the JPMorgan Chase Tower, the Sistine Chapel and the Statue of Liberty. The episode also explores Hashima Island in Japan, which was abandoned by people in 1974.
It's 1 day after people, without humans to maintain them, power plants around the world start shutting down. Lights go out. Clocks stop. A race has begun to see who or what can survive the longest in a hostile world of life after people. Around the world, the mummies of many of Egypt's pharohs lie not in tombs deep inside pyramids, but inside the plexiglass of modern museums. 1 day after people, the eletric temperature and humidity controls that mimic the cool, dry environment where the mummies once resided sut down. How long can these mummies last? We shall see.
1 month after people, more than 100 bodies kept in suspended animation at the world's cryonic facilities are still in a deep freeze. According to experts, even a month long powercut won't cause the bodies to thaw. They're kept at a temperature of -320 degrees Fahrenheit by liquid nitrogen, which doesn't rely on electricity to maintain its temperature, but there's a problem, liquid nitrogen boils off slowly. In the time of humans the supply had to be replenished every few weeks. With no-one left to restock the crucial refridgement the bodies begin to heat up. Once they reach -184 degrees Fahrenheit, chemical reactions resume and the natural processes of decomposition take over. For these human beings the bid for immortality is coming to an end. And should some future intelligence wish to recreate humans, they will find no help in the laboratories left behind by man. There are approximately 400,000 human embryos currently frozen in clinics in the United States alone. They along with all the egg and sperm samples in the world quickly decay, as their supplies of liquid nitrogen run out. But man's DNA still has a chance for survival. 200 miles above the Earth, up in the International Space Station rests a computer disk called the Immortality Drive. Delivered into orbit in October 2008, the Immortality Drive contains the digitalized DNA information of a highly eclectic group, including physicist Stephen Hawking, comedian Stephen Colbert and Playboy model Jo Garcia. It's the brainchild of Richard Garriott, video game designer from Houston who thinks that alien beings may one day might use the DNA data to reconstruct an extinct humanity. The Immortality Drive may be man's best shot at preserving the species in a life after people, but can it really last forever?
Another medium through which man has achieved immortality is art, creating images that have lasted centuries. But many masterpieces require protection, in controlled environments. In the time of humans Michelangelo's magnificent frescoes on the ceiling of the Vatican Sistine Chapel were protected by more than 20 miles of pumps, pipes, valves and wiring. To prevent the fresco plaster from absorbing too much water from the air the humidity was kept at between 20 and 60%, air filters remove even microscopic particles of dust, it was all controlled by computer. But without electricity, the system has closed down forever. But 3 months after people the disappearance of humans are actually helping the fresco. Without the annual hordes of 2 million tourists, there are no ascending currents of human body heat. The figures painted on the ceiling, including God and Adam are safe, at least for now.
6 months after people, while nature attacks some of the bodies and structures left behind, she preserves others. In the barren wastes of Ross Island, Antarctica, are the huts used in the early 20th century by explorers Robert Hut and Ernest Shackleton. Here, with an average temperature of 3 below 0, the ravages of decay have been slowed. Inside and out the huts remain frozen in time. Cans of beef from 1917 sit on the shelf. Meat still hangs on metal hooks appearing quite edible even after almost a century. In some cases extreme cold has preserved flesh for thousands of years. While the Antarctic cold will preserve the explorer's huts for many years, it's the more temperate parts of the globe that most people called home. Cities like Houston, and Boston, where the artifacts of man face a much harsher fate. Sitting in Boston Harbour is one of the most famous ships in American history, the USS Constitution, first launched in 1797 is the world's oldest commissioned warship still afloat. During the war of 1812 cannonballs were seen bouncing off the ship's 25 inch thick wooden hull, earning her the nickname "Old Ironsides". But even Old Ironsides is defenseless in this race to survive, along with what most of man has built.
9 months after people, the race to see what survives is becoming more intense. In Boston a millitary relic is about to lose its final battle. The hull of Old Ironsides may be tough enough to repel a cannonball, but it can't withstand the constant infiltration of water. In the time of humans automatic bilge pumps drained 900 gallons of water a day from the ship. But those pumps stopped monthes ago, this flooding alone won't be enough to drag the ship underwater, it will take the Boston Winter to do finally what enemy warships never could.
3 years after people, the International Space Station still orbits above the Earth, but without constant re-calibration from terrestrial stations, or boosts from space shuttles, it loses 2 miles of altitude each month. As it drops from its original height of 200 miles to below 160 miles, the orbital decline accelerates, until it re-enters the atmosphere where air and friction meet gravity and the Space Station burns up. Incinerated in the descent, the final hope of reconstructing the human species. The digitized DNA of the Immortality Drive proves to be quite mortal after all.
5 years into a life after people, weeds have transformed the historic streets of Boston. Boston's old North Church is under attack. It's here that lanterns warned Paul Revere of the British invasion in 1775. Now, the natural world has invaded, and conquered.
It's 20 years since humans disappeared, nature has conquered the sub-tropical city of Houston. The tallest building in Texas now looms over a city that is slowly reverting back to the swamp it once was. Once kept at a steady 72 degrees, Houston's once great dome sports stadium has now swelter to 125 degrees in the Summer, they become enormous batcaves. The artificial grass of the Astrodome is swallowed up by weeds and muck. Feasting on insects the bats make their own contribution to the new ecosystem, their excrement or guano.
25 years without people has not been kind to the mummies housed in the world's great museums. With no-one around to regulate heat and humidity, mould struck first, then insects. Great kings like Ramesses the second and Tutankhamun have been reduced to skeletons. When Lenin died in 1924 his body was given into the hands of skilled embalmers and his corpse was preserved for decades in Moscow, the process was once a state secret rumoured to involved repeated bathes in formaldehyde, ethanol and methanol. Caretakers were always on duty to protect the body, scrubbing away bacteria, closing up openings in the flesh and lightening blemishes. But with no-one to tend it Lenin's body goes the way of the rotting pharoahs.
The wooden steeple of Boston's 18th century old North Church is on the verge of collapse. The once guiding light of the American revolution is extinguished. 35 years after people is long enough to turn coastal cities like Boston into ghostly wrecks, how do we know this? It's a future that has already happened almost 7000 miles from Boston. This island was the most densely populated place on Earth, until man disappeared.
35 years after the disappearance of people, homes, offices and factories are cracking and subsiding, as nature takes over. It's a future that has already come to pass in one remote corner of the world. Several miles off the southwest coast of Japan a forsaken island stands lifeless and decaying. Hashima Island was once a thriving coal-mining town and homes to thousands of people. Now it's abandoned offices and residential buildings are literally exploding under nature's relentless hands. Because of the unsafe conditions Hashima is strictly off limits to visitors. In the 1890s Japan's Mitsubishi company began mining coal from the seafloor beneath Hashima. At its peak in 1959 the 15 acre island was home to more than 5000 workers and their families, the highest population density recorded on Earth. In 1974 as Japan began favouring petroleum over coal Mitsubishi closed the mine and relocated the entire population to the mainland. 35 years later, nothing remains but decayed buildings and ghostly memories. These rooms once echoed with the laughter of children playing, now all that remains is the corroded remains of their toys. Overgrown and forgotten the school playground in now rusting scrap metal. Hashima is a laboratory for showing what happens to reinforced concrete in a savage environment. Every year the typhoon season delivers rains and winds up to 100mph, whilst huge ocean waves smash into buildings. Scientific studies of concrete core samples reveal that the buildings most exposed to the ocean had a salt content 15 times greater than the others. The concrete buildings themselves gave the island a warlike profile and even a new nickname "Battleship Island". The wooden facades of balconies were quickly destroyed, the many passageways and stairs that connected the buildings are now falling apart.
It's been 50 years since the last human voices echoed through the streets, alleys and hallways on planet Earth. But the words of man haven't been completely silenced. After humans disappeared tens of thousands of domestic parrots escaped into the wild and still retain the words and phrases taught to them by their vanished owners. Some parrots have learnt several hundred words and might keep that vocabulary, even without humans to interact with. So, for now some of mankinds words will survive.
75 years after people.Time and nature are wearing away Boston's monumental Bunker Hill Bridge. The steel and concrete span, held up by 116 cables, strung from 2 towers and required constant maintenance in the time of humans. The cables are coated in a plastic piping to keep moisture off them, the plastic piping also keeps them safe from another source of corrosion. The waste products of pigeons and starlings contains high levels of ammonia and salt, mixed with rainwater the combination triggers a lethal electro-chemical reaction. It was 20 years of bird droppings penetrating the steel of an eight-lane bridge in Minneapolis that contributed to its fatal collapse in 2007.
After a century weather and stress has cracked the protective plastic coatings on the Bunker Hill Bridge. Storm water, some of it mixed with acidic pigeon dropping, has penetrated to corrode the steel. One by one the cables snap, when half have gone those that remain can no longer support the weight of the roadway. Down the coast in New York more than 200 years after she was given as a gift of friendship from the people of France to the people of America, the statue of Liberty is still holding her torch high, the second to be held aloft by Lady Liberty. The original was replaced in the 1980s during a massive restoration period. Now beneath her copper skin, only a few millimeters thick, her skeleton is beginning to disintegrate. Her end has not yet come, but without humans it soon will. In Houston the dome stadiums have spent the last 100 years as sub-tropical paradises. In the time of humans it cost an estimated half a million dollars a year to maintain the Astrodome, the first dome-based baseball stadium in the world. After a century of neglect the entire structure is cracking and crumbling. Finally, in great chunks the 9000 tonne steel and lucite dome comes raining down.
150 years after people, leaves Boston looking like an untamed, overgrown and neglected garden. In the time of humans the best observation point in the city was from the top of the 60 story John Hancock Tower, the tallest building in New England. But the notorious New England weather has destroyed the building's outer skin. Corroding steel columns lead to a pancake collapse. The urban jungle is now just jungle, but former cities still echo with familiar words. Although these parrots have never interacted with humans, their ancestors did and some remnants of human speech have been passed down to them. But our languages will not be immortal, while parrots can pass on human words to their chicks, it has no value for the survival of the species.
Over a period of 200 years, the tallest building in Texas has had it's windows blown out by hurricanes and it's insides corroded by rain. Now the accumulated forces of nature will strip the building to it's bones. Then, the steel frame itself will corrode and collapse. 1600 miles away in New York Harbour the Statue of Liberty's best chance for immortality might lie beneath the waves.
300 years after people the Statue of Liberty suffers a fatal relapse of an old complaint, galvanic corrosion. The torch bearing right arm is the first to fall. Other parts quickly follow. Here on the ocean floor these shattered symbols of hope become the fossils of the future. While one icon of humanity makes a bid for immortality on the ocean floor, the most famous ceiling in the world is barely hanging on.
Half a millennium after people, Michelangelo's frescoes still look down from the Sistine ceiling, where they cover 12,000 square feet of surface. Even though all the frescoes have faded and cracked from changing temperature and humidity, on the wall depicting the last judgement Michelangelo's heavenly sky has faded faster than most others. The ultramarine pigment comes from Lapis Lazuli in Tunisia. It was the most precious colour in Renaissance art, but also one of the most delicate. It's blue colour comes from 3 sulphur atoms and an electron protected by aluminium and silicone atoms. High humidity breaks apart the structure, allowing sulphur to mix with the oxygen turning the blue, to a yellowish-grey. Throughout it's history people have tried to clean the frescoes and shore up the chapel itself, but after 5 centuries the last judgement has come. Exterior bracing buttresses fail, initiating a chain reaction.
10,000 years after people, almost all trace of humanity and it's culture are buried beneath vegetation and sand. The planet has become warmer, even on the coldest places on Earth. Shackleton's huts disappear. In 10,000 years the Earth itself will have buried all of man's cities.
100 million years after people, dreaming of immorality man tried to make his mark on the world, but those marks have been erased. In the end what survives is not what people made, but the simple mineral compounds that made people. This then is the final fate of humans.