Today, many overpopulated cities face serious expansion issues. They can no longer build up or out, so they build down. Some countries are investing in underground living, but only for short periods, where people would go, for example, to sleep after an entire day’s work.
But what if civilization completely collapsed on the surface due to global warming or a terrible catastrophe? Could humanity live permanently underground? Would we be technologically advanced and live like the vault dwellers in the Fallout video game series (without all of the shady experiments), or would we regress as a species and become bent, goblin-like creatures like the Falmer or H.G. Wells’ Morlocks.
We need to understand much to answer this question, so let’s dig deep and see if our civilization could go full subterranean.
Indispensable resources (and where to find them)
The first thing that comes to mind when thinking about the possibility of retreating underground is where we’re going to get water, power, and food. And while these things are necessary for us to survive, they won’t be enough if we actually what to live “down under” (we see you Australia).
A lot of planning and supplies, a capable maintenance team, and seamless mechanisms to handle all the psychological issues involved would be good… for starters.
Suppose a disastrous event sent us packing underground. In that case, it’s safe to admit that any power sources we relied on while living on the surface are gone (and the people who operated them are probably gone too, sorry Fantastic).
Plopping down solar panels might not be possible. Depending on surface conditions after a disaster, we probably wouldn’t be able to venture out to maintain them, and there’s always the chance that they wouldn’t get any sun, anyways.
At this point, our better shot would be digging down instead of up and trying to take energy from the Earth itself. We could take advantage of geothermal energy, provided by the heat of our planet’s core, extracted from hot water and rocks.
Speaking of water, there’s no way we would be able to leave our bunkers to go fetch some after a cataclysmic event hit us. If the surface was hospitable enough, we could set up a rainwater collector, but that wouldn’t provide enough water for everyone (and who knows what’s in the water?)
Luckily, underground we can find naturally occurring aquifers containing groundwater. This would work as a great source of water, provided we could purify it before consuming it and contain the source before it flooded us.
Stocking up on canned food and other non-perishable meals would be a great idea, but it would only last for a short while. If we could bring farm animals with us underground, that could work, but we would need a way to sustain them if they were to sustain us. But we can’t forsake the vegetarians!
Hydroponic gardens are commonly used nowadays and could be a valuable source of leafy greens, vegetables, herbs, and fruit underground. This agricultural concept would allow us to save space and water while still providing food with a high nutrient content that could potentially sustain us all.
No one ever wants to address this stinky bit, but we would have to find a way to manage sewage and wastewater successfully. Simply letting it pile up somewhere around us wouldn’t end up well, as we’d get sick pretty quickly.
Depending on the crops we plant, we might consider using the waste as fertilizer, but we would need some proper ventilation. If we managed to build into a mountain or somewhere that’s still above sea level; we might try to find a water source that could drain the waste away to the ocean (it’s not like we’d be worried about the environment after a total catastrophe).
I’m Freaking Out Man…
If we could manage to survive underground for long periods, we’d have to deal with the severe strain on our brains. Existing and “living” are two very different things.
Let’s look at some of the psychological and physical issues humanity would face underground and how we could try dealing with them.
For many people, the idea of being confined underground can be terrifying. Not seeing the sun, not being able to breathe fresh air, not being able to get away in the case of a fire or flood, and even the idea that everything will collapse are some of the anxiety-inducing thoughts that cross people’s minds.
Gunnar D. Jenssen, a researcher at SINTEF, in Norway, who studies underground psychology and space design, found that about 3% of people are severely claustrophobic. Still, there are some ways to counter their fears.
“If you give these people something that gives them perceived control over the situation, they accept being in it. That is the key,” Jenssen told the BBC. He added that clean air and space are essential in these situations. Or at least a perception of space created by an illusion.
Jenssen worked on 4 of the longest tunnels in the world, creating illusions of space by adding well-lit oases with palm trees and sky illusions along the route. “You have a feeling of breathing space, a feeling of being outside, even though you’re 1,000 meters underground going through a mountain,” he said.
Lack of sunlight
The sun is our most significant source of vitamin D, and without it, we quickly become more depressed and irritable. But our “sunlight” doesn’t necessarily need to come from the sun. As long as we have a stable power source, we can use LED lamps that offer safe UV wavelengths allowing us to produce the vitamin D we need. Our crops can benefit from these light sources too! And if that doesn’t work, we can work our way around it by taking supplements or eating fortified foods.
There are also some mental issues related to the lack of sunlight, like Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), where people feel more depressed as the days get shorter and there’s less sunlight exposure during the day. Fortunately, there are already some tools in the market that can help you cope with SAD, like therapy lamps that provide artificial sunlight.
(Underground) living in the present
Many important parts of our daily lives exist “buried” under the ground, like power, information networks, water, sewage pipes, basements, tunnels, and subway systems. However, in some places, you can already find people who actually live underground.
Coober Pedy, a small town just north of Adelaide, in South Australia, is pretty much inhospitable. Temperatures can reach 50ºC, but that didn’t drive the residents away. It drove them down.
About a century ago, the miners that lived there realized that the air was significantly cooler underground, so they decided to carve their subterranean homes from the rock and have stayed there ever since.
Singapore, one of the most populated countries globally, is considering building an Underground Science City (USC). This subterranean science community (40 caverns of labs and data centers) would be made about 80 meters below the surface of Kent Ridge Park and could potentially house over 4 thousand researchers.
Not all existing underground living conditions are this exciting and promising. In Beijing, China, the lack of affordable housing is forcing people to go underground and live in mixtures of bomb shelters and common basements repurposed to act as small (and illegal) dorm rooms.
So Can Humanity Live Underground?
Some of us already live underground, even if it’s not permanently. Rising cities see underground housing as the only way to escape their overpopulation issues, while in other places, people need to be underground to get away from harmful environmental conditions.
Annette Kim, director of the University of Southern California’s Spatial Analysis Lab, spent a year studying the underground living conditions in China. She believes that subterranean life might be in store for many of the world’s major cities in the world the future.
“If we continue to have this rapid urbanization and people want to come to the big cities, we’re going to have to [live underground], yes,” Kim told the BBC.
In the case of a total planetary catastrophe, things would be a lot different because there could be the possibility of never being able to leave. That scenario would require us to implement new power sources, food, water, and overall living. Depending on the time we had to plan, a lot of luck would also come into play.
Raquel is a forensic geneticist turned freelance writer. She has a knack for technology and a passion for science. You can follow her at scitechcorner.com and on Twitter @theRaquelSantos.