The Map of Shelters and Refuges from Global Risks (Plan B of X-risks Prevention)

This map is part of the map: “Plan of action to prevent human extinction risks. This map zooms in the Plan B of x-risks prevention.

The main idea of the map: There are many ways how to create x-risks shelter, but they have only marginal utility for x-risks prevention, even if we include space colonization. Sweet spot of catastrophes for which refuges may be helpful is small (see their list in the Table 1.) For example, in the case of an asteroid impact less than 1 km in size, no specially built shelters would be needed, as existing refuges will be enough. And, in the case of 20+ km impact, no known shelters will help. Building large refuges results in many nasty trade-offs, which could even make them a source of additional risk.

The map consists of two parts: the map of all known types of refuges itself and also a table of trade-offs which undermine the efficiency of refuges (Table 1 below).

The vertical axis of the map: On the map, all refugees are divided into three categories: 

a) Currently in existence

b) Possible, based on current technologies

с) Possible in the future after super technologies, such as nanotech are created

The horizontal axis of the map: On the horizontal axis is the distance from typical city dwelling to a refuge, which correspond to difficulty to reach it.


Additional comments:

1. Space colonization as a refuge. I also include space colonization as a refuge type, but it is not exactly the same. The classical refuge is aimed on repopulating Earth after the catastrophe, but self-sustained space colonies may never return to Earth. So, they are more about increasing the resilience of human civilization by increasing habitable zones and thus zooming up needed scale of the catastrophes which could affect all zone.

Space colonisation is not a universal solution as throughout human history, the size of possible artificial catastrophes has grown faster than the size of the civilization.


2. “Yellow submarine” project. My preferred idea of shelter is the one which I refer to as the “Yellow submarine” – that is, existing nuclear submarines converted into a "Noah’s Ark" with fertile and trained people on board, equipped with relevant knowledge and stockpiles. Nuclear subs were built to survive large changes in pressure and for prolonged independent existence in hostile environments. They are also able to escape detection in the case of war.

Decommissioned nuclear subs could be converted into moving refuges for a relatively small price (compared to the total price of nuclear fleet). Submarines solve the problem of energy independence, overheating, oxygen, water. They could change their level of isolation. Some are equipped with nuclear reactors that can function for 20 years without reloading.  Nuclear submarines are mostly limited by food stockpiles and the fixing of technical problems.


Best literature on the topic: Most current research on the topic of refuges is summarized in the article "How much could refuges help us recover from a global catastrophe?”   by Nick Beckstead, who is in general skeptical about their utility and suggests that they could help only in small range of catastrophes, namely pandemic and radiological contamination created by cobalt bomb. I agree that utility of refuges is limited but I think that there is more risks there they could help.

Another well polished idea is presented in Karim Jebari’s article: “Existential Risks: Exploring a Robust Risk Reduction Strategy.”  In this article, Jebari discusses underground shelter with nuclear power in remote locations, which favours the resettlement of humans at a later date.

Use of colour in the map. I have marked boxes of the most promising ideas in green.

The table below shows a lot of trade-offs which undermine the expected utility of large shelters.

Conclusion: In general, I tend to agree with Beckstead, that the usefulness of refuges is only marginal, and they should not be the main focus for x-risks prevention. In any case, I think it would be rational for humanity to devote part of its budget to creating specialized anti-global risks refuges, as described by Jebari. It could be in combination with nuclear submarines for refuge, because submarines are better for acute impact phase survival and if based on remote islands, could be useful for a longer contamination phase survival.

 The pdf of the map: http://immortality-roadmap.com/sheltersmaps2.pdf 


In the following table, I present some trade-offs about shelters (Table 1):


Table 1

Types of shelters:

Positive features:


Large shelters

·       Capable of housing several people in each structure and thus restoring civilization

·       Complex technology could survive inside it

·       Universal defense

·       Examples: large underground city, Mars colony

·       Could be used as a command  and coordination center for the rebuilding of civilization


·       Expensive

·       Location is known and could be targeted in the case of war

·       Large shelters are attractive targets for countervalue strikes

·       People from outside could try to go inside, leading to contamination from contagious diseases

·       Terrorists could appear inside the shelter and destroy it

·       Hostile agent could use a shelter as starting point for a Doomsday attack, hoping to survive inside

·       Internal conflicts between people in shelter may result in its destruction


Smaller shelters

·       A large amount of shelters in unknown locations increases survivability

·       High probability that at least some of them will survive

·       Examples: basements, subways, ships

·       Existence of many shalters could use the stochastic nature of some catastrophes where  effect varies many times in different places of the Earth’s surface, and some places are safer

·       Weaker defense

·       Shorter time of independent survival

·       Not enough people in one place for restarting civilization

·       Not a universal defense

Universal shelter

Good, as we don’t know what type of a catastrophe will happen

·       Not enough defense for any particular catastrophe

·       Expensive

·       Could be obsolete by the time construction is completed, as new risks would have appeared

Specialized shelters

·       Built for only one type of risk: biological or nuclear or other.

·       Equipped with needed decontamination facilities

·       Construction could be started when the nature of the impending catastrophe is clear

Different types of shelters are needed for different risks, and they will not help in the case of a complex catastrophe.

Low tech shelters

Old Cold War shelters could be used for a low price.

Most risks are associated with new super-technologies, that is biotech, nanotech and AI, and old shelters will provide little defense against them

High tech shelters

Could provide adequate defense against biotech and maybe nanotech risks, and excellent defense against impact risks and nuclear war risks.

·       No shelter could work against Unfriendly AI

·       High tech shelters require creation of the same technologies from which they will give protection

·       Nuclear war as a means of war will obsolete after the creation of nanotech, so nuclear defense will be of little value

Independent shelters

·       Best shelter should have its own energy and oxygen supply, and leave no traces on the outside. It requires nuclear power.

·       The best type of such shelters are nuclear submarines

·       It may require food independence that is the ability to grow one’s own food

·       Energy and oxygen independency makes shelter much more expensive.

·       Nuclear power carries its own risks

·       Thermodynamics require heat dissipation system, which could unmask shelter


Long-term shelters

Longer protection time provides for a better defense against a wide range of catastrophes, as nature tends to return to normal conditions, but after long time periods. Nuclear winter could last a decade, and radioactive contamination – several decades. Biological de-contamination and ecology rebuilding may also require decades.

·       Smaller and more isolated shelters provide less survival time

·       Long-term shelters are larger, more expensive and less secret

·       They are more vulnerable

·       Some types of catastrophes may require a 50 year shelter, as in the case of a large cobalt bomb explosion

Types of risks for which refuges are most suitable

·       Multipandemic – several simultaneous pandemics, genetically engineered dangerous animals and insects

·       Cobalt bomb explosion and global radioactive contamination by other sources such as nuclear strikes on all world nuclear power plants

·       All of the above combined with nuclear winter

·       Nuclear war of much larger scale than it was possible during the Cold war, may be due to cheap nukes creation

·       War which is using larger armies of autonomous killer robots or small drones (with limited AI and limited ability to self-replicate)

·       Asteroid impact of precise size (several km)

·       Global chemical contamination

·       Reversible global warming on a scale of 10-30 C

·       Large, but short flood basalt event


Not suitable for (because of overkill):

·       Unfriendly AI

·       Aliens and the SETI-attack

·       Grey goo

·       Slow bioweapons (like AIDS)

·       Simulation shutdown

·       System crisis and long insurgency

·       Recourses depletion

·       Runaway irreversible global warming

·       “Black holes” on accelerator

·       Very long term environment damage

·       Earth core degassing


Not suitable for (because of underkill):

·       Natural pandemic

·       Ordinary nuclear war

·       Small global warming

·       Supervolcano eruption






What should shelters preserve?

·       Around 100 humans in perfect gender mix for further reproduction, in perfect health, without transmittable diseases, with high genetic variants, highly educated, and prepared for the rebuilding of civilization

·       Knowledge: books, skills

·       Seeds and instruments for rebuilding

·       Values

·       Human history and culture backup

·       Frozen eggs and sperm

What it should not preserve:

·       Weapons of mass destruction

·       Other sources of global risks

·       Dangerous ideologies

How bunkers could increase global risks?

·       Doomsday blackmailers could put themselves in such bunkers (Dr. Strangelove-style)

·       Survivors from the bunkers could continue war between themselves

·       Dangerous technologies could be preserved in bunkers or even their development could be continued there.

·       Existing shelters may create the illusionary feeling of safety and encourage more risky behavior.

·       Khan said that building an invulnerable bunker could be provocation to start nuclear war for the adversary

Building bunkers could be part of local efforts on x-risks prevention, which don’t depend on larger cooperation. So, it could benefit from the activity of people who were unable to participate by some reasons in global cooperation in risk prevention.

Distance and crews

·       Large and expensive shelters should be constantly populated by trained crew, as they are typically far from cities and it takes time to reach them. Such crews should be constantly rotated and paid.

Smaller shelters could be placed inside or near homes and used on warning.

Level of outside contamination

·       The higher the outside contamination, the more complex the technology should be on the inside of the shelter to provide clean air

·       And longer will be time for the environment to return to normal

Low level of outside contamination is advantageous for smaller shelters


·       Larger shelters allow for the manufacturing of some goods inside, including air, water and food, which increases its ability for long-term survival

·       If the shelter has all types of manufacturing available, it is no longer a shelter, but rather an isolated part of the civilization

·       Smaller shelters will have to survive on stockpiles or people will have to go outside and forage

Number of bunkers

·       One bunker could fail due to an accident, so many bunkers provide the best defense

·       Too many bunkers result in financial overstretch or lowering of their quality

·       Many bunkers in different countries could lead to the continuation of war

·       The first bunker crew which will leave its refuge, would have an advantage in earth repopulation

·       The best bunkers could also act as command centers during a war, causing them to be targeted first (applies to space colonies)


·       More isolated bunkers get the best protection


Bunkers able to be opened to outside could control the environment or collect resources from outside

Thermal problems for deep bunkers

·       Geothermal gradient is around 25 C /km, which means that deep bunkers will be overheated. They may need above ground complex cooling systems if they are more than 1 km deep.

·       Submarines don’t have this problem

·       But, large waves in case of impact could affect them

·       Ice glaciers may not have this problem

Types of specialized bunkers

·       Biodefence: many compartments with negative pressure and decontamination tech

·       Military or anti-weaponry: fortresses with defensive and offensive weapons

·       Nuclear: protection against explosions and radioactivity; decontamination facilities

·       Global warming: high in the mountains or in Antarctica


Opportunity cost

·       Large bunkers could provide false feelings of security and encourage risky behavior

·       Building bunkers is very expensive and the same money could make difference in AI safety and biosafety


Forecasting and timing

·       Larger bunkers require more time to buildfrom several years to decades, and this requires a strong forecasting ability to envision future risks


Autonomous shelters based on super-technologies

·       Could survive many different types of catastrophes

·       Could survive for very long time as nanotech will provide needed manufacturing capabilities.

·       Could function without humans and recreate them from fertilized eggs or as uploads.

·       Will be possible only after the most dangerous phase of technological development is over.

·       Could exist as a life form without humans at all, even as a replicating life form

·       Can’t protect against strong AI


·       Individuals could pay for personal survival by buying places in shelters and thus increase the probability of human survival

·       The buying activity could work as a predictor in the market for global catastrophe (Hanson)

Advertising is often misleading in this field, and private bunkers are not optimal for global survival

Two phases

·       Large shelters should have two functions:

·       Impact phase – ability to withstand acute attack during nuclear war, impact or peak of pandemic

·       Contamination phase – ability to survive long-term in a “dirty” environment.

Different small shelters could be suitable for different functions







Comments (9)

Comment author: casebash 24 October 2016 07:32:58PM 2 points [-]

This is excellent work. I'm curious, how long did this take you? Are you just doing this by yourself or are you a researcher?

Comment author: turchin 24 October 2016 08:03:11PM 3 points [-]

I wrote couple of books in Russian about x-risks several years ago, and in takes several years to come to most of the ideas in this and other maps, but I decided to completely rewrite what I did in books and transform into maps as it would be more contemporary form of information presentation.

It took around one week to make one map if I work 6 hours a day. I did around 30 maps and plan more.

I work in Foundation for Life extension based in Moscow and think about my self as of researcher. I have several academic publications in Russian magazines on x-risks topics.

Other my maps are here: http://immortality-roadmap.com/sample-page/

Comment author: Denkenberger 24 October 2016 01:34:17PM 2 points [-]

Nice! Though preppers are a less extreme version of survivalists, there are supposedly about 3 million preppers just in the US. In independent shelters, food should be produced by chemical synthesis, not photosynthesis: http://sethbaum.com/ac/2015_Refuges.html Also, if underground, the heat could be dissipated into the surrounding rock for decades or into the flowing groundwater.

Comment author: casebash 24 October 2016 07:29:12PM 2 points [-]

I wonder if it is worth the effort for EA to perform outreach to preppers/survivalists to spread ideas about existential risk?

Comment author: turchin 24 October 2016 07:33:47PM 1 point [-]

Maybe they are well aware about risks and do what they can? But it seems that they are preparing to the wrong catastrophes. If they collectively crowdfund MIRI or something like this, it would be substantial help.

Comment author: Denkenberger 30 October 2016 12:30:59PM 2 points [-]

We have tried a little to engage with preppers. We wrote about them in our book. We know that all but the most extreme only have about one year of food storage, which would not last a five or 10 year nuclear winter. They tend to be focused on their families and local communities. Some of them are concerned about non-science-based risks. I did give a webinar to the American Preppers Network emphasizing the alternate foods that could be done on a household scale (and cheaper than food storage). They could help by testing out alternate foods, but I have never heard of any of them doing that.

Comment author: turchin 31 October 2016 10:33:04PM 1 point [-]

How long is your home supply? My is something like 5-10 days, but I cary month supply in my belly )))

There is also flutrackers.com community who discuss stockpiling in case of flu pandemic, but you probably know them.

11 my relatives had been starving in Sankt-Peterburg during WW2, so I was grown on the legends about it.

Comment author: turchin 24 October 2016 02:00:47PM 1 point [-]

Thanks for the ideas. I will add preppers into the map.

What to you think of the negative side of refuges? They could be used by terrorists who want to exterminate other people on earth, or used as military command centers and places to preserve some WMD?

Comment author: Denkenberger 30 October 2016 12:25:03PM 1 point [-]

The first one is scary-I don't think we want to spread that meme.