Roads to Nowhere is the ninth episode of season one of Life After People: The Series. It originally aired on June 16, 2009.
This episode looks at how vehicles will deteriorate without people, how America's automobile plants and transportation symbols such as the Renaissance Center and the Ambassador Bridge will shatter in Detroit's harsh winters, and how unattended oil refineries will explode. In San Antonio, the Alamo falls to a new invader, and the Tower Life Building meets its demise. Also, animals adapt, armadillos spread, some dogs rekindle their hunting instincts, and longhorn cattle flourish once again. This episode also examines the Packard plant and the 60 square miles (160 km2) of Detroit which were abandoned in 1960s.
Imagine our planet without it's people. Imagine that every single human being has simply disappear. This isn't the story of how that might happen, it's the story of what happens to the world we leave behind.
1 HOUR AFTER PEOPLE - It's 1 hour after people, all over the world, oil refineries and chemical plants are still pumping out the lifeblood once used to power cars and keep aircraft aloft. Thick plumes of steam continue to billow out from the dense cluster refineries situated along Houston's Shipping Channel. In the time of humans 1 fifth of America's oil production passed through here, feeding an insatiable demand for fuel. Every day the USA consume 20 million barrels of oil. Everything seems to be running smoothly. But suddenly alarm bells ring. Without people, the oil refineries are in trouble. There's a problem in the reactor, a tall column that helps break oil down to petroleum. Each refinery depends on storage tanks, some holding 20 million gallons of oil, to feed the reactor continually. Just 1 hour after humanity's disappearance, one of the feeder tanks has run dry. Without a fresh supply of incoming oil, the reactor turns the whole refinery into a ticking time bomb. But the reactor isn't empty at all. Deadly gasoline vapors designed to burn only inside a car engine linger. Runaway temperatures rupture the reactor creating sparks and causing fumes to explode. Fire rushes through pipes that connects to a holding tank filled with already refined gasoline. It ignites. More sparks and heat ignite another tank and then another. Within seconds the whole refinery is on fire. In 2005 15 workers died and another 170 were injured at an oil refinery explosion in Texas City when unmonitored gasoline fumes found an igniting spark. In a life after people there will be no one to stop this disaster. The fuel that once propelled humans around the world now fuels a disaster.
3 DAYS AFTER PEOPLE - Three days after people, A once domesticated pet in central Texas is in trouble. She's called a lacy and she's no ordinary pet. Part sight hound part shepherd and part wolf, a lacy is a born problem solver, gifted with a sharp nose she can sent any food that has been left behind. With a slim athletic body, a lacy has no trouble leaping onto the kitchen worktop. She's finding the last scraps of food in the house. With her options dwindling and stomach growling, her basic instinct starts to kick in. While neighborhood cats provide the meat, the lacy looks for water wherever she can find it. An outdoor dripping tap throws her a lifeline. But once the tap stops dripping in central Texas, the lacy faces a decision. Without food or water, a former owner's house is useless to the lacy. Her boundless energy serves her well in central Texas, where the annual rainfall is 35 inches so water won't be a problem, for food the lacy has work to be done.
4 DAYS AFTER PEOPLE - 4 days after people. Detroit is silent. In the birth place of the motorcar, there are no longer any on the road. And there are no lorries to shuttle cargo to Canada over the Ambassador Bridge. The Renaissance Center, the tallest building in the state stands empty. 4 miles east of the center on the banks of the Detroit River, at the city's waterworks plant some machines are still humming. Even though power plants begin to fail worldwide. The diesel fuel powering the generators will last for 2 days, and so it's business as usual at the waterworks even without people. The electronic boards at the system control room continue to keep track of the half a billion gallons of water filling the city's pipes. But in a life after people, catastrophe looms. There's no one around to turn on a tap. Beneath the city centre 4 foot diameter pipes dating back to the 19th century are the weakest links in the system. In their lifetime they witnessed the birth of the Model T, the rise of the three motor car producers and the collapse of manufacturing. But these pipes are finished. The pipes start to burst. Compounding the disaster much of the city is built on clay. 10 foot high fountains turn Detroit's streets into a spectacular show of water.
1 WEEK AFTER PEOPLE - 1 week has passed since humans disappeared. As the oil refineries continue to burn in Texas, the 100,000 longhorn steer living throughout the state on open ranches or in barns are facing a crisis. The 800 kilo beasts rely on weekly hay rations. Without people to give them food, and with barbed wire fencing keeping them in, it looks like it's the end of the road for these creatures. But these lumbering beasts aren't feeling anxious. Longhorns descend from Spanish cattle, a tough breed brought to the new world on Columbus's ships. It's in their blood to eat whatever is available. They also have a pair of not so secret weapons. Although individual longhorns managed to survive these first few days without people, their survival as a species is still in doubt. In a life after people the changes are swift throughout Texas, as oil fires continue their march of destruction, San Antonio faces imminent death, while local wildlife thrives in unexpected places.
2 MONTHS AFTER PEOPLE - It's 2 months after people, supplies of oil and petrol haven't run out yet, an apocalyptic firestorm still burns along Houston's Shipping Channel. In the time of humans, this area processed most of the 1 million barrels of crude oil produced in Texas every day more than any other state in the US. 200 miles west is the city of San Antonio with it's iconic landmark, the Alamo. Nearby the San Antonio River streams peacefully through the abandoned Riverwalk. In the time of humans this was the most popular gathering spot in the city. Now, once packed office towers and hotels look down over empty barges waiting for tourists that will never come again. The river has attracted people for centuries, native Americans who lived here named their settlement refreshing waters. But in a life after people, this tide is about to turn. Now all that stands between the river and the destruction of the city is a steady rain, something that's all too common in this part of the country. In this part of the country, warm moist air drifting in land from the Gulf Coast collides with cooler dry air sweeping in from the north bringing frequent rainstorms to central Texas. As a result, half of the top 12 world records for rainfall in 48 hours originate in flash flood alley. The buildings at the Riverwalk stand level with the San Antonio River, some 15 feet below the surrounding streets. Where the San Antonio River bends into the city centre at the entrance to the Riverwalk 3 ton floodgate stands guard. In 1921 a burst of rain inundated the city center with up to 10 feet of water, killing 50 people. Meanwhile above the Riverwalk, at street level, the Alamo the oldest building in San Antonio, silently awaits the assault.
3 MONTHS AFTER PEOPLE - 3 months after people, Houston's oil refinery fires have finally exhausted their fuel. And since the world's oil refineries are now reduced to ruins, the 1.2 trillion barrels of crude oil that lie untapped beneath the earth's surface will never propel any man made machine again. In the scrub lands of central Texas the lacy that staked out on our own is having no problem without their owners. And she's not alone, these enterprising canines have discovered food to be plentiful in central Texas. In the time of humans 2 million feral hogs scoured the Texas countryside. Without hunters to keep their numbers in check, the wild pigs are rampant. The lacies herding instincts have awakened a primal hunting urge. Lacies are not large enough to take down hogs that weight over 90 kilos on their own, but in packs, they thrive. With the seemingly never ending supply of food, the lacy dog seems destined for success.
6 MONTHS AFTER PEOPLE - 6 months after people. Another Texas resident is enjoying the new world order. The nine banded armadillo. It's armor of bony plates and leathery skin is designed to protect it from predators, except for one. In the time of humans, their most dangerous enemy was traffic. Countless cars and lorries roar down the streets and roads. When it came getting out of the way, their instincts failed them. Their tendency to jump, sometimes as high as 3 or 4 feet serves them well against predators by scaring them away, but when the attacker is a speeding car, the encounter can be fatal sometimes. No state in the US had more of these death traps then Texas, with it's 80,000 miles of roads. Now, with no traffic, armadillos own the roads. Man's abandoned cities offer new places for armadillos to explore and they won't be confined to Texas. Even in time of humans, they spread deep into Florida, as far west as Nebraska, and as far north as Southern Illinois. Only cold weather holds them back. As long as the weather stays warm, and there's no traffic, armadillos will do very well in a life after people.
25 YEARS AFTER PEOPLE - A quarter of a century after people, the extreme Detroit climate is taking it's toll on the city's skyline. In the time of humans the Renaissance Center stood as a monument to the industry that delivered Detroit into a golden age. In the city where Henry Ford's modern assembly line made the family car affordable, his grandson commissioned the construction of the Renaissance Center. 2 decades later, the entire complex including the 73 story central tower, the tallest building in Michigan, was purchased by General Motors, once the largest car manufacturer in the world. 25 yeras without people has turned the Renaissance Center's atrium into a forest. Although the decorative palms have died, native trees like shagbark hickories and giant oaks have moved in. 25 years of neglect have already destroyed some parts of Detroit. What will the Motor City look like 40 after people? We know, because it's already happened.
40 YEARS AFTER PEOPLE - 40 years after people. Detroit is a wreck. It's a future that has already happened in some parts of the city. Abandoned houses and building are now slowly waiting for their final stand. From 1900 to 1930, the burgeoning motor industry powered a growth spurt. The city's population skyrocketed more than fivefold to more than a million and a half of inhabitants. Abandoned for 40 years, Detroit's packard plant, 5 stories and 47 buildings is a sad reminder of a once thriving car industry that pumped life into the city. The Packard Name was once synonymous with luxury, churning out everything from convertibles to limousines. But the public stopped buying it's designs. Burdened with a crushing debt, Packard closed it's doors. And nature changed things around the building in 40 years. Plants and animals have colonized the area. Even the roof is slowly turning into a forest. Without windows the inside is beginning to look like the outside. Where workers once assembled Packard engines, saplings now take root. Moss has begun to colonize the floorboards. Meanwhile the harsh climate is eating away the building’s foundations. The seasons haven't been kind to abandoned homes as well. As competition from foreign car manufacturers intensified, a million residents moved out from the urban center between 1950 and 1980. Huge areas have been left behind like neighborhoods that once housed humans. Of the 137 square miles that make up the city, 60 are completely empty of people. The only things left are ugly reminders of a former elegance. Abandoned structures are decaying from the top, down. Even the strongest structures cannot resist the harsh climate of Detroit, like one building made from solid brick walls. Water seeps into the brick, expanding and contracting, as it freezes and thaws, prying it away from the facade. In another 75 years the entire building will collapse into an unrecognizable heap. A century after that, nothing will remain. In this harsh climate it doesn't take long for a building to crumble. There's one school that has only been abandoned for 2 years and it already shows signs of damage. As the population continues to decline in Detroit, there are fewer children to teach, so schools continue to close. In the next years the buildings in Detroit will sense transformations.
50 YEARS AFTER PEOPLE - 50 years after people. Detroit, the city once ruled by car manufacturers, crumbles. A place that once produced 15 million cars every year, now sees those same cars decaying on its streets. None of them have inflated tires anymore, but the rubber and synthetics will last hundreds of years. Within another 25 the harsh Detroit climate will reduce cars into skeletons. 1500 miles away in San Antonio, repeated rains have spawned cycles of flooding along the riverwalk. Waterlogged foundations leave the buildings tilting at odd angles, as silt and sand inundate the area. The lean proves too much for one of the buildings. Meanwhile the Alamo facade stares back untouched on its elevated perch on the city's street level. But an enemy is attacking the compound from within. In the time of humans, live oaks already dominated the Alamo's courtyard Without people to redirect the massive limbs, the trees will begin to demolish the Alamo's walls. Over 200 years after the Alamo fell to the invading Mexican army, an army of trees conquers it again. The Alamo doesn't stand a chance.
150 YEARS AFTER PEOPLE - 150 years after people. When it opened as a gateway to Ontario in 1929, Detroit's 1850 foot long Ambassador Bridge, was the longest suspension bridge in the world. In the time of humans this was the busiest border crossing between the US and Canada, carrying 25% the goods, the majority in car parts, traded between the 2 countries. But as the vertical suspension cables give way, nothing will ever cross this bridge again. In a life after people, there is no one to repair the damage in the cables. The vertical cables lay one of two horizontal white lines known as catenary cables. 37 steel strands each about a foot in diameter, connect to form just one of the catenary cables. Another vertical cable snaps, and a segment of the deck crashes into the river. A 150 foot gap now gashes through the road to Canada. Within seconds, the other sections collapse. In the century to come, the wheels of progress continue to roll backwards, as the seat of the motor industry monarchy disintegrates.
150 YEARS AFTER PEOPLE - 150 years after people. In Detroit, just upstream from the Ambassador Bridge, the central tower of the Renaissance Center still stands taller than any other building. Broken windows have left the structure unable to retain any heat from the sun. One of the upper floors finally loses its grip. And the rest of the central tower collapses, bringing down one of the adjoining buildings as it falls.
200 YEARS AFTER PEOPLE - 200 years after people. On the skeleton of the Ambassador Bridge, the white horizontal cables that once held up the span, is now helping to topple the bridge's remains. The towers finally yield, and the last remains of a great transportation link disappear. In San Antonio, the river has swallowed the city. The Alamo is still standing, but only barely. Like the great stone temples of Cambodia's Angkor Wat, years of uncontrolled tree growth have the structure in a death grip. There is one one to remember the Alamo, and more importantly, no one to take care of it. As the Alamo collapses, another Texas icon soldiers on. After breaking out into the wild, longhorn cattle are finding that history is repeating itself. In the 1800s, they escaped from the confines of their Spanish masters. In this life without people, longhorns acquired a genetic diversity that now serves them very well. They're actually disease resistant. Many dairy and beef cattle died out quickly in a life after people, because they struggle to give birth without human assistance. Longhorns don't have that problem. Two centuries in a life after people, they number in the 10s of millions, just as they did in the 1800s.
1000 YEARS AFTER PEOPLE - 1000 years after people. Detroit has become a swamp. In the city that gave birth to the history changing V8 engine, the SUV and pickups, the sound of a roaring engine is long gone. But there is one place where an American made vehicle can be found. Over 200,000 miles from Detroit, 3 moon buggies remain. Left behind by 3 Apollo missions, they stand in near mint condition, because the moon's environment doesn't attack man's technology like Earth's does.
All that's left from the civilization once dominated by vehicles, are these motionless relics. This life after people is quiet and still.