The Capital Threat is the third episode of season one of Life After People: The Series. It originally aired on May 5, 2009.
In a life after people, the forces of nature could consume Washington D.C. and America's national treasures as they fall into ruin, zoo animals could escape their enclosures, and Los Angeles could burn in an inferno, suffer a massive earthquake, and eventually return to its original state before it became civilized by humans. The episode also explores Angkor Wat in Cambodia, which was abandoned by people in the 15th century.
1 Day After People
In Washington D.C., the United States Constitution is now on permanent display inside the rotunda of the National Archives Building. The document is preserved in a shatterproof seal encasement which is filled with argon, a gas that replaces oxygen and moisture containing air, but now there's no one to send it to the security vault. On the Washington Monument, it is now free from the daily visits of tourists, the US Capitol Building is ghostly quiet, and the statue of Abe Lincoln on the Lincoln Memorial now gazes on a pool without people. The National Mall was already in need repairs and upgrades in the time of humans, it took 250 park service employees to maintain the National Mall and the maintenance cost at $350 million, but now, the capital is threatened by water.
1 Week After People
In Los Angeles, its freeways are abandoned and lack of traffic noise. On the city center is the 73 story US Bank Tower, the former tallest building in Los Angeles and west of the Mississippi river, was designed to be occupied for more than 100 years and was built to survive the "big one", an earthquake measuring at least 7.5 on the Richter scale. But now, the US Bank Tower is no longer occupied.
2 Weeks After People
In zoos of Los Angeles and Washington D.C., the animals are dying of starvation. But for the elephants, without humans to supply their intake of 150 pounds per day, they became frantic and using their intelligence and powerful trunks, they are able to break out. In history, mammoths used to dominate the grasslands 13,000 years ago, before humans appeared in North America, these mammoths are the distant relatives of modern elephants. The Elephants begins a new life in the urban jungles of man great cities.
Meanwhile, 3,000 tons of garbage have been uncollected in Hollywood, and some of its sewer systems deliver the garbage directly into the ocean, where its destination would reach in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch stretch between San Francisco and Hawaii contains 3.5 millions plastic waste that is nearly indestructible to decompose, twice the size of Texas. Now, these garbage patch still afloats on the Pacific Ocean.
3 Weeks After People
Something is happening in Los Angeles, as water became scarce. LA residents used 137 gallons of water per person per day in the time of humans, these are used to water lawns and plants, and most of them came from the Owens Valley, knowingly from the Los Angeles Aqueducts. The water travels through a series of power-generating plants carrying 125 gallons of water a day, but when the power plants stop working, the water backs up and it begins creating new reservoirs, prohibiting Los Angeles its main water source.
1 Month After People
Los Angeles is returning into a desert. The thirsty green lawns, trees, and gardens are withered, setting a stage for a massive catastrophe.
In Washington D.C., there's too much water in the city, especially the Potomac River, where the failure of electric pumps beneath city unleashed and the water levels rise higher and floods become greater without people to used the water for lifestyles. Another problem came arise in the Potomac River, beavers are returning. When the first settlers arrived in the Chesapeake Bay and came ashore, Washington D.C. was marshland because of the beavers shaping the Potomac River by building beaver dams which create huge wetlands, and in the time of humans, park rangers trapped and relocated the beavers to the different places. Beavers return to the city as usual like nothing has happen.
2 Months After People
In Arlington National Cemetery, the eternal flame of the grave of the former US President John F. Kennedy still alights, but it is danger. It was only extinguished only once in 1963 in the time of humans when visitors poured holy water directly over the flame causing the eternal flame to established an electrical powered relighting system which flows by natural gas line to keeps the flame burning. But when the electricity of Washington D.C. turns dark, the electric relighter fails, causing the first rainstorm to snuffs the flame that once thought "eternal".
Its now 6 months after people. Back in Los Angeles, while some animal populations are desperate for water, others are learning to adapt, including one bloodsucking scourge suddenly deprived of its human protein, mosquitoes.
Brent Karner: We’re sitting here in Los Angeles, a place with a lot of swimming pools. If people disappeared, these swimming pools would go into disrepair. There would be stagnant water. This would be a great place for mosquitoes to breed.
In the time of humans, when the wave of home foreclosures hit Southern California in 2008, West Nile virus cases were more than doubled. To blame were the thousands of suddenly abandoned swimming pools where the mosquitoes rapidly reproduced. A single stagnant pool can support hundreds of thousands of the pests. Within one year after people, the natural world is rapidly taking over the city streets. Soon, it will set off a chain of devastating events that will turn our great cities into capitals of destruction.
It is now 1 year after people, and our nation’s monuments are under attack. Towering some 550 feet, The Washington Monument is the tallest freestanding masonry structure in the world. The load-bearing walls are 15 feet thick at the base, and 18 inches thick at the top. Completed more than 125 years ago, it was intended to endure for centuries. But even in the time of humans, the stone was already beginning to deteriorate.
Matt Chalifoux: We can see, up close, some of the deterioration that just happens on a regular basis. We can see the deterioration in the mortar joints and the patching thats been done over time. And this is a really good example here, we can see that even though this was recently renovated, we’ve already lost this material, so even in that short time span, the deterioration cycle is just ongoing. It’s only a hundred of deterioration, but it shows the kind of loss of surface that we gent, and the kind of loss that we would imagine would occur as we move forward.
One year after people, despite the neglect, the US Capitol Building appears unchanged. Even the dome, made of civil war era cast iron, is keeping out the elements.
Kim Roddis: The first year, you wouldn’t expect to see much change. However, that cast iron dome is painted, and over time, the paint protective system will start breaking down. So you would expect to see some rusting starting to become visible as the iron is exposed from the paint.
Even the solid marble of the Lincoln Memorial is hinting at a future without human care. With no routine cleanings, the blocked drainage pipes are starting to cause cracks and water damage to the roof. The vertical span protecting Abraham Lincoln also contains steel bean reinforcement.
Matt Chalifoux: The tragic flaw is the roofing system. You’ll have water penetration in it, and where you have water and you have steel, we have corrosion.
Our national monuments remain under attack. Which one will stand the longest?
It’s three years into a life after people, and downtown Los Angeles is an overgrown metropolis. LA’s famous freeway system has gone green.
Doug Failing: The concrete itself would be relatively invisible within a very, very short period of time. The roadways themselves are great seed corridors. So the winds, the natural winds that we get, would drive a lot of seeds and other materials down those open corridors.
Grasses and other small plants quickly take over, and soon trees begin growing, their roots tearing apart the concrete.
1 decade after people, and Los Angeles is firmly on the path to becoming a desert once more.
Fred Barker: Probably within a few years, you would begin to see the nonnative plants dying out, and the native plants coming back and gradually taking over.
Without the aqueduct importing billions of water, the huge Canary Island palm trees lining the streets of Beverly Hills are now decaying trunks. This nonnative tree was imported in the 1930s to add to the city’s exotic appeal. But it requires an average of 30 gallons of water a day. And after 10 parched years, it slowly dies from the top down. Los Angeles is nearly unrecognizable, but it’s nothing compared to whats coming. Wildfires can burn for weeks, and even longer if the conditions are right. In 2007, the Zaca Fire in Santa Barbara County raged for two months, the longest burning wildfire in modern California history. Now, when a lightning strike sets off a fire in the hills, there won’t be any firefighters riding to the rescue.
Jonathan Stewart: The mountain fires that we see virtually every year here is Los Angeles would penetrate into the urban setting. And you have the potential for a major fire event.
Downtown, the US Bank Tower burns from the inside out. The structural steel frame withstands the searing heat. It can endure temperatures of over 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit without degradation. But the interior spaces burn quickly, turning LA’s tallest building into a charred skeleton. The stainless steel panels of the Walt Disney Concert Hall are virtually fireproof, but the flames consume the plant life that grows between them. In Hollywood, the rotting wood of Grauman’s Chinese Theater is engulfed in mere seconds. The foot and handprints of Tinseltown legends, formed in cement, easily survive the inferno. The Hollywood sign is engulfed as its acrylic latex paint feeds the fire. But the 50-foot tall letters will survive the scorching. Although they look like wood from afar, they are actually made of steel.
50 years after people, now, 200 years overdue, the big one, an earthquake measuring 8.0, hits Los Angeles. The US Bank Tower is a charred teetering steel skeleton. The top 21 floors have earthquake-damping struts installed between floors. But after wildfire damage and years without maintenance, they can’t fend off the inevitable.
Steven Ross: If you think about a bullwhip , a slight flick of the wrist will create a big motion at the far end of the bullwhip, and it will snap. Well, it’s the same thing with the building. Part of the top of the building could just topple away because it’s moving. It’s the tip of the bullwhip.
Just a few blocks away, the 32-story LA City Hall is the tallest structure in the world fitted with a base-isolated anti-earthquake mechanism.
Johnathan Stewart: What the base isolators do is they allow the building to remain relatively stationary while the ground shifts beneath it.
But the base isolators rely on rubberized bearings to absorb the shock and minimize vibration. After fire damage and 50 years without maintenance, the rubber has deteriorated. City Hall is doomed.
Steven Ross: Despite the extra technology, nothing lives forever, especially in the Los Angeles Basin.
That includes another cherished symbol of the big screen. The Hollywood sign is coming down. The quake shears off the corroded bolts that held the letters securely to girders sunk into the bedrock. Faster than most American cities, Los Angeles is shaking off its human skin. But Washington, DC, faces a much different fate.
100 years after people, the imprint of man is fading in some places, but actually growing in others. A water bottle from the California coast will float for many years before it’s sucked into the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The Garbage Patch is still expanding as more plastic refuse arrives from North America, China, and Japan. The century-old plastic materials will remain intact far into the future.
Gordon Masterton: Because of the durability of some of the plastics that we have produced, we will actually see evidence of those outlasting the evidence of the substantial buildings we’ve built with steel, concrete, and timber.
After one century on permanent display at the National Archives in Washington, DC, the Constitution is facing an invisible danger. The encasement seals are failing and allowing in air molecules. The oxygen content increases to 1/2 of 1%. But no known microorganisms can attack the parchment without at least 2% oxygen. So the documents will be safe for many more years.
Mary Lynn Ritzenthaller: You still would have a good, relatively airtight, and moisture-proof container for the document.
The words of America’s founding fathers will live on, as long as the roof holds out.
Over the last century, the beavers have been busy. New tree growth on the National Mall allows the creatures to build dams and cut new water channels from the flooding Potomac River. Across the wetland, the dome of the US Capitol is rusting. With the paint long gone, moisture is forcing open the joints in the cast iron sheets. The openings attract pigeons and other birds. Because the dome is built atop an iron truss system, much like the girders of a bridge, it’s an ideal nesting place.
Kim Roddis: The birds will build their nest there. When it rains, the rain will collect there. That nesting material will hold it like a sponge against the iron, and the iron will continue to corrode.
Corrosion is also setting in on an iconic structure in Los Angeles. The Walt Disney Concert Hall was built with stainless steel, one of the most anticorrosive metals. It’s protective oxide layer keeps corrosion from occurring. After 100 years, the oxide is fading, and the silver panels are slowly changing to the color of dried blood. The Walt Disney Concert Hall is now a spectacular sculpture of rust. Corrosion is also pulling apart what’s left of the freeway overpasses, and rain is transforming some parts into a water world.
Doug Failing: A number of locations here in Los Angeles, our roadways are actually below grade. So when the water falls, we have to be able to collect it. We have drainage inlets like this in the roadway. The water collects in the drainage inlet, and it goes to pumps that pump the water out.
Now, the inlets are clogged with debris, and the pumps stopped working long ago. So dozens of small lake ecosystems dot the freeways.
Doug Failing: it’ll be a gathering place for the animals because animals will come down out of the adjacent mountains, and the freeway corridors are a relatively straight easy shot for them to use to migrate from place to place, so it’ll actually be a nice little reservior.
But with the prey come the predators, the jumbled overpasses are now points of ambush.
150 years after people, the descendants of the North America zoo elephants are enjoying their life after people.
John Anderson: You could expect to see substantial herds within the first 100 to 150 years, after the original pioneers break loose from the sanctuaries or from the zoos. A lot of the pasture land that will be left behind when we disappear would be ideal foraging country for elephants. And I think elephants would have no trouble at all in making a living.
250 years after people, In Washington, DC, the Lincoln Memorial is in dire straits. A few of the highly corroded steel roof girders snap, and the Lincoln statue is no more. Atop the weakened cast iron dome of the US Capitol Building, the 15,000 pound bronze Statue of Freedom is now the architect of destruction.
Kim Roddis: The statue is trying to pull on one side of the dome and push on the other side of the dome. That, then, means that the entire statue will punch down through the dome. And it will all slump over like a wedding cake.
Centuries without maintenance have caused the Rotunda of the National Archives Building to collapse, exposing the US Constitution to the elements. Still protected inside it’s casement, wind and rain are not the greatest threat. It’s sunlight. The damaging ultraviolet rays cause ink to fade. And within a few years, the words are slowly erased from history.
500 years after people, the Washington Monument is losing the battle with nature, it’s stone blocks chipping away with time. At the tip is a small aluminum pyramid.
Matt Chalifoux: When it was built in the 19th century, aluminum was a very precious metal. It was actually valued more than gold or silver, and it was put there essentially as a lightning rod.
In the 1930s, eight copper rods were extended around the pyramid to help arrest the lightning. The aluminum pyramid outlasts the corroded copper rods. But it’s lost its ability to channel lightning bolts. Lightning strikes the Washington Monument at an average of once a year, a long-term threat to the pyramid. 500 years after people, the masonry structures of Washington, DC are failing. It is a future that has already happened nearly 9,000 miles away at a mysterious site that was once a great capital of men.
Six centuries into a life after people, in great cities like Washington, DC, brick and stone are the only remaining markers of human architecture. How do we know this? The proof is found in another great capital city that people abandoned long ago. Deep in the interior of Cambodia in Southeast Asia, five ancient towers rise like thistles from the surrounding jungle. This is Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world. Surrounding it are dozens of smaller temple complexes. In 1860, a French explorer hacking through the jungle came upon these great towers. His journals would introduce the world to Angkor Wat. For more than 500 years, Angkor was the center of the Khmer Empire, a civilization ruled by all-powerful kings. Their drive to build stone monuments rivals that of the ancient Egyptians. The colossal stone work was all done by hand.
John Sanday: They are massive, as you can see, enormous size. And they probably weigh anything between 2 and a half to 3 tons. These exceptionally fine joints, theres no mortar between them. They’re just laid one on top of the other. And they’re fixed by gravity.
Evidence indicates that Angkor Wat was abandoned nearly 600 years ago, in the year 1431, after enemy Siamese soldiers ransacked the temple.
John Stubbs: Everything began to go downhill because there was no maintenance of these vast temples that required thousands of people to maintain them. Nature took over almost immediately, and within 100 years, it was engulfed by forest.
Of all the temple complexes in the area, Angkor Wat is the best preserved. Most believe that a nearby community of Buddhist monks worked to save it from the jungle’s grip. But the other abandoned temples in the area saw no human intervention for 600 years. And the jungle showed no mercy. Beng Mealea is a smaller version of Angkor Wat. In 2002, the local authorities finally began to peel back the jungle. Nature had the temple in a death grip. On a daily basis, the temple stone is being ripped apart by tree roots. At Beng Mealea, it’s the prolific strangler fig, a type of ficus tree.
John Sanday: So here is probably one of the best examples of the damage these trees can do. This is a ficus, and it always grows from the roof downwards. The birds like the seeds of this tree, and they eat the seeds, and the seeds will germinate in the birds stomach, and then it will excrete them out onto the top of the roof, and the seeds will then start developing, growing, the roots will come down, into the ground, soak up an enormous quantity of water, and than slowly, slowly, expand the roots. In this case, it’s actually broken through the stone, and you can hear its hollow. The roots come right the way through, and it causes untold damage.
The assault is relentless. In many cases, when the ficus tree grows old, a new ficus grows up and devours it.
John Sanday: Here you have a very good example of a ficus that is entwined around one of the old trees, the original tree here. And its wringing the life out of it. And the tree is now, actually causing quite a lot of damage to the structure, because its got quite a sail effect. And once the winds go, it starts swinging around, and this causes an enormous amount of destruction.
At the nearby temple of Ta Prohm, silk cotton trees use their oversized roots to jack apart the stone blocks.
John Stubbs: This tree is holding up this entire shrine. The roots are growing from beneath the shrine. Look here, for instance, at where this lentil has separated from a window jam. It’s only hanging on an inch of bearing surface. I’d say in 2, 3 years at least, this half of the building will be on the ground. This little plant is the culprit. The roots of the plant travel into the stone and the joints seeking moisture and nutrients.
As the roots expand over many years, they pry apart the stone until a single load-bearing element dislodges and brings down the entire structure. Hundreds of years of unhindered growth has done immense damage. But one tiny insect only needed a few years to impose its destructive power.
John Stubb: I’m standing on top of a giant termite mound in a portal to a shrine. This thing must be 7 feet tall. It’s an extinct population of termites. Certainly after abandonment of the site in the 15th century, they went to to town, working, eating the wooden ceilings and furnishings, and fittings throughout the place.
Wildlife of all kinds inhabited these sacred stone monuments for centuries. When men move out, the animals they most feared moved in. Even today, the deadly king cobra favors the temples closest to the encircling moats. In 2003, a hunter near Beng Mealea survived an attack by 2 Bengal tigers. The cats were reportedly living in the destroyed temple complex. Could the lessons learned from these deteriorating temples provide some insight into the future of a place like Washington, DC?
600 years into a life after people, without man to repair and protect his greatest monuments, nature will slowly and inevitably take sole possession. 600 years after people, the era of great collapses in mankind’s capital cities is almost over. The previous centuries have witnessed the fall of man’s houses of brick, wood, and our rigid towers of steel. The last recognizable edifice still standing in Los Angeles was the heavily corroded US Bank Tower. The steel skyscraper the wildfire that charred the rest of Hollywood and much of the LA Basin. The big one snapped off its top 21 floors. The lower 52 floors defied the odds of hundreds of years.
Steven Ross: This building is an odd one in that it has a central core that’s fairly stiff concrete, and it has a steel framing around the edges. The concrete core would have collapsed sooner if the building was in a climate that had more freeze-thaw cycles. But this doesn’t really happen in LA. Earthquakes are whats going to get you.
A moderate quake finally brings down the weakened structure. Little has changed in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Over centuries, the sunlight causes the plastic to further degrade into smaller and smaller compounds. Now, its a poisonous stew containing immeasurable amounts of toxins like PCBs. Ocean creatures and birds continue to ingest the plastic soup. And the Garbage Patch lives on long after people.
After 1000 years, Washington, DC, is becoming like the lost city of Atlantis. Centuries of sea level rise are finally drowning the evidence of a once great capital of men.
Tim Beach: We would expect a good portion of the mall to be underwater and many of those monuments to be capsized, something like modern Alexandria today in Egypt, where a number of the monuments are underwater and capsized over.
Still above the waves are the ruins of the US Capitol.
Kim Roddis: The various rooms in our Capitol would become exposed to the sky. It would start looking like what we see in Rome with the Forum.
The Washington Monument is no longer a proud structure. Erosion and the encroaching seas are causing the foundation to sink. Submerging is the only chance it has to remain intact.
Jan Zalasiewicz: The buildings, they’re going to sink beneath the waves, they’re going to get covered with mud, sand, and silt, and those will encase the remains of buildings and effectively fossilize them.
Atop the sinking stone edifice, the aluminum pyramid is discolored by lightning strikes, but still recognizable.
Kim Roddis: In life after people, after tens of thousands of years, that aluminum pyramid could be the last clearly man-made object left in our capital.
Unlike most naturally occurring metals, aluminum contains an oxide coating that protects and preserves. On one side of the pyramid is the inscription “Laus Deo, praise be to God.” These could be our nations final words to the future.