There are few better nights than Halloween for memento mori, and I’ve been fascinated by the concept of the “doomsday shroud” for much of this year, and now I’ve got an idea for a post-apocalyptic yet heartwarmingly romantic universe. Picture this: at the end of the 1960s, in the midst of a much more heated Cold War, a nuclear World War III breaks out, automatically triggering both superpowers’ “doomsday devices”, massive buried stockpiles of salted nuclear bombs, poisoning the whole world with lethal levels of cobalt-60 fallout, enough to kill every single life-form on Earth.
Is that the end of mankind? Human extinction? No. After the war, all nations unite in a global alliance to battle what is now their true enemy, the only enemy: the “doomsday shroud”. Committing all the resources of the world in the greatest mobilization in history, massive nuclear-pulse-propelled spaceships each large enough to hold a city of 10 million people, buildings encompassing whole cities transplanted brick-by-brick from the great urban edifices of earth, and biosamples from every ecologically significant species on Earth are constructed in large enough numbers to evacuate every single person, all 3 billion human beings in the world, into outer space, before the fallout rises to lethal levels.
Now a spacefaring race, mankind scatters throughout the universe, some arks make for the other planets, some for the asteroids, some for the comets, some for the stars, and others stay near the despoiled homeworld, awaiting the day when life on Earth will be reborn.
After a hundred years, when the race of men responsible for the war have extinguished, the radiation is down to safe levels, and the Earth is reseeded with life from above, the primeval forest starts to grow back, fish once again spawn into the sea, until within a few centuries after World War III the Earth is a pristine wilderness, more verdant than it was before the war, all mankind having sworn and kept an oath to never again wage such a terrible war, to never again despoil a paradise.
Imagine it: all humanity starting afresh, undertaking the greatest cosmic adventure of all time as the homeworld is healed into pristine wilderness, the trauma of war soothed by the triumph of man.
There’s a certain romance to it: at a stroke, our whole world is swept away into oblivion, a rapture borne of our own ingenuity allowing everyone to live, to begin again, as we face a whole new universe with a spirit of bold curiosity.
So how realistic is this scenario? More realistic than you might think. You might have noticed a similarity between this “doomsday device” and the one in “Dr. Strangelove”; believe it or not, the salted bomb stockpile in “Dr. Strangelove” is based on real research, and has been technically and likely economically feasible for any nuclear power to construct since the 1950s, though thankfully no one has yet done so (as far as we know…).
The escape mechanism, nuclear-pulse-propelled spaceships each big enough to hold millions of people, is directly inspired by real research as well, namely Project Orion. As early as 1959 it was thought an eight-million-ton spaceship, massing about as much as a whole city, could be constructed. It would have taken a large fraction of our entire economic output, but in an emergency like a doomsday device going off that cost would undoubtedly be considered acceptable. Assuming 10 million people per ship, less than 400 such vessels could accommodate the entire global population as of 1970, 3.7 billion.
Admittedly the biosphere ark aspect is a bit sketchier, but research on closed ecosystems in space-colonization contexts should cross over to this scenario just fine. Collecting biosamples for later reseeding of all ecologically important species (and then some) in an emergency mobilization is probably feasible.
How long would this reseeding take? According to Wikipedia, global fallout that starts intense, 10 sieverts per hour, is lethal after 30 minutes’ exposure; cobalt-60’s half-life is five years. After 53 years, or 10 half-lives, the radiation is down enough to permit up to 4 days outside without developing acute radiation sickness. Only at the 100-year mark is the fallout down to safe levels, 30 times the pre-war background dose. At this point the Restoration can begin. At the 130-year mark the threat is well and truly over, as fallout doses are now negligible.
After a century of lethal irradiation the surface of the Earth is a sterile moonscape, the whole world a wasteland of death and decay, but once reseeded from outer space primary ecological succession in both the lands and the seas will work its will, especially if accelerated by the hand of man. On land, microbes spread very quickly, followed by lichen and mosses, which will regenerate topsoil. Within decades, grass will take root, covering most of the Earth in a giant prairie, shrubs and bushes starting to cover more and more of the world. Trees will then start to grow, spreading over all the pre-war forest zones. In two centuries, a full-fledged forest ecosystem will once again straddle the globe. Another couple of centuries, and it’d be indistinguishable from the primeval woods. The seas will experience a similar transformation: in a few centuries, human visitors to the mother planet will be dancing with the whales, surrounded by endless schools of fish, the beaches teeming with lobster.
The cities? The big cities and the charming old towns would be spirited away to the spaceships, but many buildings, such as most suburban homes, would be abandoned to their fate. As in “Life After People” they would gradually decay, but the lack of life on the surface might prolong their lifespan. After two centuries there could easily be many residential structures still more or less intact, even if only in the form of ruins.
That would be an interesting backdrop, even creepier than my “kudzu house” concept in my primary fictional universe, to the ecological succession: the microbe, grass, shrub, and tree wavefronts of ecological succession overtaking the decayed ruins of a 1960s suburban neighborhood, everyone around excited with the buzz of terraforming as if it’s an alien planet, until they lay eyes on the reminder that this is the ancestral homeworld.
Anyway, I think that’s the perfect thought to leave you with on this spookiest of holidays. Happy Halloween!