Isolated refuges for surviving global catastrophes

Refuges could help small populations survive global catastrophes if certain refuge design criteria are met.

Seth D. Baum, David C. Denkenberger, and Jacob Haqq-Misra, 2015. Isolated refuges for surviving global catastrophes. Futures, vol. 72 (September), pages 45-56.

Pre-print: Click here to view a full pre-print of the article (pdf).

A variety of global catastrophes threaten the survival of human civilization. For many of these catastrophes, isolated refuges could keep some people alive and enable them to rebuild civilization in the post-catastrophe world. This paper examines the potential importance of refuges and what it would take to make them succeed. The successful refuge will have a variety of qualities, including isolation from catastrophes and self-sufficiency. These qualities can be achieved through a variety of specific design features. We introduce the concept of surface-independence as the gold standard for refuge excellence: refuges isolated from Earth’s surface will offer maximum protection against both the catastrophe itself and potentially harmful post-catastrophe populations. However, surface-independence introduces significant design challenges. We present several challenges and evaluate possible solutions. Self-sufficiency in food provision can be greatly enhanced via chemical food synthesis. The rejection of waste heat from subterranean refuges can be enhanced via building piping networks and locating refuges near running groundwater or in ice. The high cost of extraterrestrial refuges can be offset by integrating refuges into space missions with scientific, political, or commercial goals. Overall, refuges show much promise for protecting civilization against global catastrophes and thus warrant serious consideration.

Non-Technical Summary: pdf version

Background: Long-Term Civilization Success
The long-term success of human civilization is of immense importance because of the huge number of lives at stake, in particular the lives of countless future generations. A catastrophe that causes permanent harm to human civilization would be a similarly immense loss. Some measures taken pre-catastrophe could help people survive and carry humanity into the future. This paper analyzes how refuges could keep a small population alive through a range of global catastrophe scenarios. The paper considers desirable refuge design qualities and how they can be achieved.

Refuge Design Qualities
Several qualities could make refuges more successful at promoting long-term civilization success. Isolation would prevent the catastrophe and its aftermath from harming the refuge. Secrecy would protect the refuge from post-catastrophe outsider populations. Self-sufficiency would keep an isolated refuge successful. Continuous population in the refuge would ensure success even when catastrophe timing is unpredictable. Accessibility would enable people to get to the refuge if they’re not already in it. Desirability would make people want to live in the refuge. Pleasantness would help people enjoy their time in the refuge. Monitoring of the outside world could help refuge inhabitants plan their actions, including when to leave the refuge. A sufficient founder population would ensure that the refuge inhabitants could repopulate the world. Resources for civilization could also help, such as agricultural seeds, tools, and libraries.

Surface Independence
The paper proposes surface-independence, meaning complete isolation from Earth’s surface, as the gold standard for refuge excellence. Surface-independent refuges could be subterranean (located underground), aquatic (in water), or extraterrestrial (in outer space). A surface-independent refuge would have the best chance of protecting inhabitants from outside catastrophes. However, surface-independence poses some significant design challenges.

Food Provision
A surface-independent refuge would need to be self-sufficient in food. Food self-sufficiency could be achieved in several ways. Food could be stockpiled, though this could take up much of the refuge’s space. Food could be produced via photosynthesis, which would additionally help refuge air quality, though it could reduce surface-independence. Finally, food could be produced via chemical synthesis, which is more energy efficient, though the foods may not be as pleasant.

Subterranean Waste Heat Rejection
For refuges built underground, excess heat would need to be rejected (i.e., removed) into the surrounding environment. Otherwise, the refuge would overheat. Waste heat could be rejected to the surface, into adjacent rock or groundwater, or by locating the refuge in glaciers.

Extraterrestrial Refuge Cost
Extraterrestrial refuges could provide an exceptional degree of isolation from Earth’s surface, but they can also be very expensive. However, the cost could be reduced by “piggybacking” refuges onto space missions that would occur anyway for other reasons, in particular for science, politics, and commerce. In this way, extraterrestrial refuges could be a lot more cost-effective.

Created 4 May 2015 * Updated 14 Oct 2015