The barren landscape surrounding the outback opal mining town of Coober Pedy, about 650km north of Adelaide, in Australia. Many of the town’s residents live underground to escape the desert heat that can reach up to 50°C. Picture: Reuters
The barren landscape surrounding the outback opal mining town of Coober Pedy, about 650km north of Adelaide, in Australia. Many of the town’s residents live underground to escape the desert heat that can reach up to 50°C. Picture: Reuters

LOOK: Could you live underground? It might be humanity’s saviour given climate change

By Vivian Warby Time of article published Aug 18, 2021

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Bobby B takes his supper alone in his 42m² home. The temperature inside is a comfortable 23°C – the same as it is beyond his home’s walls.

His dinner comes from the hydroponic plant close by and he will later meet friends in one of the town’s drinking pods. It’s been years since Bobby ventured out of his town to “that other place” – the one above ground where his grandparents were born.

These days the temperature there is in excess of 70°C and vast tracts are uninhabitable. The underground city Rucidifus, in which Bobby lives, is the norm in 2100.

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His story could well be part of a cli-fi book – a new literary genre based on climate change – in which Bobby and billions of future climate refugees would live in underground cities. Cli-fi is in part a dystopian (and, if you’re keen on some hope, utopian) take on what could happen if extreme weather conditions are not prevented. But it is also not as far-fetched as we might hope.

Just a week ago, the sixth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) highlighted that Earth’s atmosphere and the seas are warming at rates unprecedented in human history and some consequences are irrevocable.

Even if we put in a big planetary effort to stop the worst impacts of climate change, some parts of the world could gradually become so hot that people would be unable to live there.

Some believe this IPCC report will be the last to be published while we still have a chance of averting the worst of climate breakdown.

Underground cities, one alternative for adapting habitats to deal with extreme weather conditions and overcrowding, are already getting attention from governments and planners. Subterranean cities are not new and date back to 1800BC when the Cappadocia region of modern-day Turkey was hit by extreme weather and the threat of war. People dug an entire city, Derinkuyu, in which to live.

More recently, in 2010, Helsinki, Finland, took the subterranean approach. The local authority approved an Underground Master Plan which was completed in 2019 and considers the underground as a part of the city.

All buildings in the Helsinki’s city centre seem to be linked to each other underground, so you never need be out on street level. Picture: Keith Andrew/Facebook

It covers the city’s entire 214km² – combining energy conservation and shelter from the long, cold winters, among other things. Many other cities, such as in Paris, Moscow, Montreal, London, Singapore and Beijing, are developing underground spaces to alleviate population and environmental pressures.

One of the most famous underground towns is Coober Pedy – meaning “white man’s hole” in an Aboriginal language – in Australia, founded in 1915. It has below-ground homes in which a large portion of its residents live. The trenches and caves were built so people could escape the unbearable desert heat that can reach up to 50° C.

Futurist Belinda Silbert believes Coober Pedy is the perfect synthesis the world requires for a sustainable future: “They are using tech to live off the grid and also utilising nature and working with what the environment gave them instead of adapting the environment to themselves.”

The lobby of an underground hotel in the Australian mining town of Coober Pedy. Picture: David Pratt/Reuters

Some experts say as soon as 2069 (when children born this year will be middle-aged) underground cities could have complete, self-contained travel and ecosystems where hydroponic farming with artificial light is used to grow food. In London, this is already a reality.

A World War II air-raid shelter beneath Clapham Common is the world’s first underground farm, hydroponically growing veg to sell to retail stores. Li Huanqing, a research fellow at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University, who made underground urbanisation the focus of her doctoral thesis, says most cities are planning multifunctional underground spaces with shopping malls and public thoroughfares to free more surface land for housing, green space and recreation.

So, while it’s technically possible to build underground living spaces, “there are a lot of things you can put underground first”, says Huanqing. The move to live underground will bring up a number of questions too, the main one being who owns the land below the surface – the state or private individuals?

And will it become the reserve of rich people who are already building doomsday bunkers to be safe from an apocalypse scenario, or will it be an equitable space for all to live in? Registered urban and regional planner Pravin Amar says some cities, including some in South Africa, already have people living underground informally – as a result of planning failure.

Underground informal housing comes with its own problems including overcrowding in badly ventilated areas. Amar says if underground cities were to be viable, they would need government buy-in. “For now, governments in some parts around the world are not even getting the basics of planning on the ground right. How are they going to get it right underground where it is more sensitive and complicated?”

Another question is whether people will be willing to live underground? Severe claustrophobics – thought to be about 7% of the world’s population – will take a lot of convincing. And the rest of us? Maybe not right now but, says Silbert, certainly, the children being born today will be able to adapt to that sort of life.

“We will see the rise of a new generation who will accept change at a more rapid rate than our generation. They will have a strong awareness that we will face extinction unless we take drastic measures.” She adds: “If technology and culture can support us in space, they could definitely support us inside our own planet.”

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Pros and cons of going under

Cons: * It will require knowledge of the location of infrastructures such as sewer and water systems; electricity and utility tunnels; bunkers; foundations; basements; cellars; vaults; passageways; archaeological remains; data centres and transport tunnels. * Artificial lighting has to be installed. * Keeping spaces open, airy and bright might be challenging. * Underground construction can be more expensive than traditional aboveground building.* Plumbing has to work against gravity. * Foundations have the added weight of earth to work against. * Convincing people to live underground might be a problem. * Lack of sunlight can cause disturbances of moods, hormones and sleep.

Pros: * Better placed to cope with natural disasters especially earthquakes and seismic activity. * Much less affected by wind, rain, frost, snow, sun radiation and other external conditions. * Temperature fluctuation range is small. * Reduces the environmental impact on cities. * Safer against nuclear or bombing attacks and climatic conditions. * Reduces occupation of surface areas. * Reduces need for heating and cooling energy.* Reduces noise pollution, dust, demand for transport and travel time

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