How To Make A Warning Label For Humans 10,000 Years From Now

One word: kittehs.

Nuclear waste can remain deadly for thousands of years. Plutonium-23, an isotope used in nuclear weapons production, has a half-life of more than 24,000 years. By contrast, some of the earliest human writing emerged only 5,000 years ago. This presents a challenge of near-eternal proportions: How do you create a label that will convey danger to someone thousands of years in the future—someone who probably won't share any common culture or language with you?

In 1990, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant called for artists, linguists, writers, and others to develop a marker system that could last for 10,000 years, Roman Mars reports this week in his excellent design podcast 99% Invisible. The plant is the U.S.'s only permanent underground repository for radioactive waste generated from weapons manufacturing and power plants, and the idea was to create a marker system that would alert future generations to the danger of waste decaying below the ground.

Think of how much language changes in just a few hundred years. The Middle English works of Chaucer bear a passing resemblance to today's English, but still require a hefty vocabulary lesson for contemporary readers. Beowulf, written in England sometime in the 11th century, requires complete translation.

Color-changing cats aren't impossible: In a 2011 study, scientists genetically engineered cats to glow in order to study AIDS.Mayo Clinic

Even symbols change meanings over time. The skull and crossbones, widely recognized as a symbol of danger now (albeit one that decorates baby clothes) once symbolized rebirth. The fallout shelter symbol means nothing if you can't read the words. How do you convey that a waste storage site isn't the fun-to-explore variety of danger, but real, death-by-radiation-poisoning danger?

At the 1990 panel, one landscape architect suggested installing giant spikes around the site, so that people would be afraid of it. But the best (or maybe just weirdest) solution proposed actually came from an earlier task force convened in 1981 discuss the proposed Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository in Nevada. Two philosophers, Françoise Bastide and Paolo Fabbri, suggested we use color-changing cats. From 99% Invisible:

Bastide and Fabbri came to the conclusion that the most durable thing that humanity has ever made is culture: religion, folklore, belief systems. They may morph over time, but an essential message can get pulled through over millennia.  They proposed that we genetically engineer a species of cat that changes color in the presence of radiation, which would be released into the wild to serve as living Geiger counters. Then, we would create folklore and write songs and tell stories about these "ray cats," the moral being that when you see these cats change colors, run far, far away.

Cats are always the answer.

Listen to the whole thing here.

[Image: Radioactive via Shutterstock]

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  • I think the idea that future people need to be warned about nuclear material stored in the middle of a mountain in the desert is more an emotional response than a logical one. If you presume that our existing global civilization will continue to advance over the next thousand years, I believe that the every increasing rate of technological advancement will pretty much ensure the material will be cleaned up most likely by being repurposed for some other use. If you presume that our civilization collapses then you have to ask yourself what is the likelihood and what is the impact of that material being discovered by future people. If civilization restarted from scratch people will live near the water just as we and our ancestor species did for hundreds of thousands of years, and 80% of the global population still lives within 60 mi of the coast, so I'm skeptical that in 10000 years that desert area will be a highly desirable living area.

  • Daniel Kim

    Several articles were published after the 3/11 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami that described an attempt by past generations to warn their descendants to avoid building too close to the shore. Rocks were carved with warnings, still readable today, saying that a tsunami destroyed everything up to the rock's position, and that buildings should not be erected below the level of the marker stones. Even with a continuous civilization, inhabitation, common language and scientific knowledge of the effects of tsunami, people still built their towns in the dangerous lower elevations, which were wiped out in 2011. It may be a hopeless ambition to warn future generations of the dangers of radioactive waste, especially if that waste is of low-level radioactivity, stored and shielded from easy exposure. It may only be possible to protect people by making the waste repository itself so highly radioactive that those who enter its boundaries will die horrible deaths shortly afterwards.

  • Ryan Holmes

    Hi Daniel - do you have any idea where to read those articles. That's really interesting, but I wouldnt know where to start with google!

  • While the thought of language development with universal understanding is interesting, it is not a new thing, even on this context. This site and accompanying movie about Onkalo, tells far further ahead things already. Maybe also they have some thoughts for the people present on the article? For the editor, maybe combining existing/done information could open a bit?