Toxic Revenge is the second episode of season two of Life After People: The Series. It originally aired on January 12, 2010.
Man may be gone, but the world will now face an assault from the toxic chemicals and deadly substances he left behind.
1 DAY AFTER PEOPLE - 1 day after people. Nuclear reactors across the world begin shutting down into safe mode. A mechanical system automatically engages to halt the nuclear reaction. The uranium used for fuel in these plants is naturally radioactive, meaning it releases energetic particles as it decays. And there's more uranium at a nuclear plant than just what's in the reactors. Every 18 months, uranium in the core stops producing enough energy to sustain the nuclear reaction, and as to be replaced. At that point, the fuel is dangerously hot. Freshly removed fuel rods can reach a scalding 2000 degrees. And it takes 40 feet of water, maintained below 120 degrees to keep them from overheating. The cooling pool may look harmless, but danger is simmering just beneath the surface.
Another threat looms at rail yards like these, where train cars wait for engines that will never arrive. In the time of humans, 31 million cars carried 2 million tons of cargo. And 40 thousand of these cars carry a common chemical that can be lethal if accidentally unleashed. Now, without people, it's waiting silently for the time to strike.
5 DAYS AFTER PEOPLE - 5 days after people. One of man's toxic leftovers is already ravaging the planet: raw sewage. Millions of gallons are flowing into the rivers around Manhattan. As electricity shuts off, 93 pump stations around the city are failing one by one. Sewage is backing up and flooding the 6000 miles of piping beneath New York. This happened before during the Northeast blackout of 2003. 5 hundred million gallons of raw sewage overwhelmed pipes, and spilled out into New York's water ways. Left unchecked, sewage produces methane gas, a mass product of decaying organic matter. And it's now finding it's way into the city's rail and subway tunnels. Lighter than air, methane naturally seeks the highest tunnels as it creeps below street level. The ultimate destination for much of the methane gas is the area around Grand Central Terminal, because it sits on one of the highest natural points in Manhattan. Ventilation intakes inside the terminal would normally clear the area of dangerous fumes. But without power, those aren't working anymore. And wherever flammable methane flows unchecked, the risk of an explosion follows.
1 WEEK AFTER PEOPLE - 1 week after people. The stench from garbage left behind by people is a sure sign of a delicious meal for this nocturnal rodent. The average raccoon weighs about 15 pounds, but those with easy access to human scraps can balloon to over 60 pounds. Without people, raccoons are continuing to exploit the structures that resemble their natural habitat the most. Raccoons seek interiors because they offer protection from weather and predators. But nothing beats the allure of free food. For a raccoon, this is heaven on Earth. A very highly developed sense of touch, means that their long fingers and toes are a raccoons' point of first contact. For these masked little bandits, the shoplifting has never been easier.
10 DAYS AFTER PEOPLE - 10 days after people. Discarded fuel rods are primed for a toxic reawakening. In the time of humans, spent fuel rods were kept below water for up to 10 years before they were cool enough to be removed safely. But now, with power lost to the cooling pools, heat from the rods is causing the water to boil away. Once the water level dips below the tops of the rod, and their temperature hits 700 degrees, the entire pool becomes a bonfire. An invisible killer has been unleashed, and nothing is safe for miles in each direction.
1 MONTH AFTER PEOPLE - 1 month after people. Niagara Falls. The 170 foot drops on the American and Canadian side on the Niagara river continue to put on their spectacular show. Although once a destination for honeymooners and family holidays, Niagara Falls also conceals a toxic secret.
1 MONTH AFTER PEOPLE - 1 month after people. 1.5 million gallons of water continue to gush over Niagara Falls each second. But this awesome natural wonder is hiding a very unnatural past. Perhaps the most lethal is the one at Love Canal, where 20 thousand tons of toxic waste lie buried. But it's not the small leaks of toxins that will cause the most damage. It's the massive surges of water that are about to wreak havoc on Niagara Falls. In the time of humans, the region attracted heavy industry because of access to inexpensive high hydroelectric power. 1 month after people, a pair of plants 7 miles from the falls are still generating electricity. Enormous intake tunnels continue to draw water into the turbines, and diverted away from the falls. But that's about to change. As the plants turn off, the intake tunnels close. The river rises 13 feet almost instantly and doubles the flow of water over the falls. Downstream, the Maid of The Mist docks, the launch point for up-close views of the falls for over 150 years, gets blasted away.
2 MONTHS AFTER PEOPLE - 2 months after people. The free ride for urban raccoons is coming to an end. Trash cans are providing the bounty they grown used to. But access to water is keeping some raccoons close to abandoned homes. Domestic gardens also provide a lifeline. Raccoons moved into cities in the early 1900's as they discovered the good life near people. In peak conditions, one square mile of urban space can support over 200 raccoons. But without the bounties supplied by people, fewer than 1 in 10 urban raccoons will survive even a year. It's no longer a picnic, but after a massive die-off, the species will survive.
1 YEAR AFTER PEOPLE - 1 year after people. At nuclear plants where overheated fuel rods burst into flames, miles wide dead zones leave a scar. A radiated ring of death already happened once, in the time of people. It was caused by a malfunctioning nuclear reactor at Chernobyl, in the former Soviet Union. Radiation decimated pine forests within a 2 mile radius. This is the damage wrought by the failure of just one power plant. In a life after people, there are hundreds of sites where spent fuel rods will unleash their deadly radiation.
5 YEARS AFTER PEOPLE - 5 years after people. An abandoned freighter still travels through the water of the Great Lakes. In the time of humans, vessels of all types carried 160 million tons of cargo through the region each year. And all vessels still floating on the Great Lakes are headed in the same direction: Niagara Falls. However, the International Railway Bridge near the entrance to the Niagara River bars the way. No ship taller than 22 feet can pass underneath. The bridge, built in 1873, is holding for now. But more ships are on the way.
10 YEARS AFTER PEOPLE - A decade into a life after people. Grand Central Terminal, once visited daily by half a million people, now is just a gathering place for owls. Methane gas has been building up in rail tunnels below. But it's not Grand Central that's in the most danger. That's because the tracks don't actually run under the building. Now, in the tunnels below the MetLife Building next door, other toxic fumes are mixing with the methane. Sitting over the tunnels, the MetLife Building is absorbing a dangerous cocktail of gases. A ball of flames erupts from below, and shatters the silence of the abandoned city.
20 YEARS AFTER PEOPLE - 20 years after people. There's a block jam at the International Railway Bridge, made up of giant ships. But it's not only the boats bearing down. In the time of humans, a boom, lade out on the lake every December, blocked ice from colliding with the bridge. So far, it's lasted 20 years without help from people. In 1938, the so called Honeymoon Bridge over the Niagara River, collapsed after a 100 foot high ice jam plowed into it. Now, the Railway Bridge collapses under the pressure. Massive ghost ships begin a new voyage, and the way to Niagara Falls, just 20 miles downstream, is wide open.
In the decades ahead, some areas will be visited by 3 forms of toxic revenge. In this American town, it's a future that's already happened.
40 YEARS AFTER PEOPLE - 40 years after people. A toxic wind blows through the abandoned streets of middle America. It's a future that's already happened here in Picher, Oklahoma, the most toxic town in America. The residents were afflicted not by one, but 3 forms of toxic revenge. All caused by the very thing that built this town: mining. Picher, Oklahoma was once at the center of the largest lead and zinc deposit in the world. Now, all that remains is the poison that can't be removed, and a land that can't be fixed. Things were different in the first half of the 20th century. As the world plunged into 2 world wars, tanks, guns and ammunition created a huge appetite for lead. But the wars ended, and in the 1950's and 60's, the mine shut down, one by one, the last closed in 1970. As many as 30 thousand citizens filled Picher at it's height. Now, it's almost entirely abandoned. Only a few dozen souls remain. While the mines closing drove some of the residents away, it's what the mines left behind that killed the town for good. Mountains made from gravel known as chatpiles are 1 form of toxic revenge. The chatpiles contained toxic doses of lead, zinc and other metals. Gusty winds blowing over the plains of the midwestern United States, scatter dust off the 75 million tons of noxious gravel pile up here. One of the casualties was this Little League baseball field, still in use for years even when citizens fled from Picher. And now, a dozen years after people, a tree claims the pitcher's mound. And native prairie grass, displaced for decades, is returning. Picher's main street has been abandoned for more than 30 years. It wasn't closed by poison dust. wafting from chatpiles. It was another form of toxic revenge: The underground void created by the removal of all that rock. In the process of digging an estimated 300 miles of tunnels, miners had removed so much of the rock and soil beneath main street, that sinkholes had started forming, and swallowing parts of Picher. Grass now springs over the pavement, where miners and their families once looked for supplies. And where shopkeepers once welcomed patrons, saplings now stand guard. It's all still on display. A pair of shoes, magazines, and supplies. Antiquated cash registers still stand by, waiting for customers that will never show. It wasn't until 10 years after the last mines closed that the underground caverns opened up by mining delivered a third toxic shock to Picher: poisoned ground water. To reach the underground deposits, miners had to puncture a natural ground water reservoir. By some estimates, there's enough polluted water below ground to fill over a million residential swimming pools. Mines built the town. But toxic water, waste piles and sinkholes destroyed it.
The destruction continues in a life after people, as toxic revenge spreads around the planet. Soon, more than water will be falling over this natural wonder.
50 YEARS AFTER PEOPLE - 5 decades into a life after people. Train cars loaded with cargo are deteriorating. Some of them carry chlorine. It was used for disinfecting drinking water and swimming pools and manufacturing plastics. But chlorine can be deadly. And these aging rail cars aren't heavily armored. The outer steel shell is only 1 tenth of an inch thick, the isolation is 4 inches of plastic. Weakened by corrosion, the undercarriage gives way. Heavier than air, chlorine gas advances over ground like a killer fog. And if chlorine gas touches water, on a tree in a lake, or even on an animal, it immediately turns into acid. In 2005, a rail accident in Graniteville, South Carolina, released 90 tons of chlorine gas into the environment, about half the carrying car's capacity. 9 people died and another 250 had to be treated for chlorine exposure. Hazmat crews needed 2 weeks to decontaminate a 1 mile radius around the site. Without people to maintain the rail cars, these deadly fogs will continue to be unleashed around the world.
60 YEARS AFTER PEOPLE - 60 years after people. A freighter grounded in the Niagara River is leaking iron ore, releasing a red stain into the water. In the time of humans, no commodity was carried over the Great Lakes more than iron ore. These largest ships, known as lakers, can hold 75 thousand tons, but they also draw more than 30 feet of water when afloat. That's too deep for sections of the Niagara River near the falls. But another laker is working it's way toward the falls. This one is not getting caught along the shallows. It approaches Niagara Falls, once a gathering spot for newlyweds, for this ship the honeymoon is over. As the reaches the edge, the front sheers off, and tumbles. The back follows. Incredibly, the 200 foot ship is actually longer than the falls is high.
350 miles to the south, the MetLife Building is also falling to pieces. When it opened in 1963, the building's 58 floors meant it stood as the 7th tallest in the United States. But it will soon give up it's place on Park Avenue. Already weakened by the methane explosion at its base, 6 decades of neglect have also assaulted the building's steel and glass façade. This means that neighbouring Grand Central Building is in the line of fire. As glass and steel rain down, Grand Central Terminal reaches the end of the line.
150 YEARS AFTER PEOPLE - 150 years after people. In New York City, the MetLife Building, after enduring a gas fire and shedding steel from it's top floors for decades, finally breaks. A giant section falls southward, tumbling onto the roof of Grand Central Terminal. Despite the attack from the MetLife Building, Grand Central's 4 granite walls still stand.
175 YEARS AFTER PEOPLE - 175 years after people. At nuclear power plants around the world, fires in the spent fuel pools burned out long ago. Still looming over these sites, are the iconic cooling towers that symbolized mankind's mastery over the atom. Plant life clings to the rusting steel lattice frame that surrounds the concrete. A steel lattice ring at the base supports the weight of the 500 foot high concrete structure. But it doesn't have any strength left. Man's once mighty power plants of the future are now reduced to rubble.
1500 YEARS AFTER PEOPLE - 1500 years after people. The American side of Niagara Falls is undergoing a dramatic transformation. For centuries, the Niagara River split at Goat Island, creating cascades over 2 brinks: the American Falls, and the Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian side. As water cascades over a fall, it's eroding the rock beneath, and moving it's brink upstream. In the time of humans, the Horseshoe Falls eroded backwards about a foot a year. And because much more water gushed over the Horseshoe Falls, that side eroded much faster than the American side. After people, the Horseshoe Falls are moving backwards even faster, nearly 6 feet every year, because because there are no longer any power plants to divert water from the falls. For the American Falls, life after people will be a life after water.
Earth moves on, in time scales too large for man to have ever truly comprehend it. Mankind's toxic legacy lessens with every passing year. Buried in the silt, covered over by grass and trees, and carried away by the tide, in a life after people.
In the next episode of Life After People, man tried to preserve his memory far into the future. With time capsules and crypts of civilization. Now, the secrets of this bizzare skyscraper rain down the skies, and how long will these defenders of civilization continue to raise the flag?