All around the world, scientists are building repositories of everything from seeds to ice to mammal milk — racing to preserve a natural order that is fast disappearing.
All around the world, scientists are building repositories of everything from seeds to ice to mammal milk — racing to preserve a natural order that is fast disappearing...
(Job One's Editor's note: The Armageddon they speak of is the same "Climageddon" that will happen unless we start doing instead of talking and implementing the plans all detailed out in our new book "Climageddon")
It was a freakishly warm evening last October when a maintenance worker first discovered the water — torrents of it, rushing into the entrance tunnel of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a storage facility dug some 400 feet into the side of a mountain on a Norwegian island near the North Pole. A storm was dumping rain at a time of year when the temperature was usually well below freezing; because the water had short-circuited the electrical system, the electric pumps on site were useless. This subterranean safe house holds more than 5,000 species of essential food crops, including hundreds of thousands of varieties of wheat and rice. It was supposed to be an impenetrable, modern-day Noah’s ark for plants, a life raft against climate change and catastrophe. Local firefighters helped pump out the tunnel until the temperature dropped and the water froze. Townspeople from the village at the mountain’s base then brought their own shovels and axes and broke apart the ice sheet by hand.
A few Norwegian radio stations and newspapers reported the incident at the time, but it received little international attention until May, when it was becoming clear that President Trump was likely to pull the United States out of the Paris climate agreement. Suddenly the tidings from Svalbard were everywhere, in multiple languages, with headlines like “World’s ‘Doomsday’ Seed Vault Has Been Breached by Climate Change.” It didn’t matter that the flood happened seven months earlier, or that the seeds remained safe and dry. We had just lived through the third consecutive year of the highest global temperatures on record and the lowest levels of Arctic ice; vast swaths of permafrost were melting; scientists had recently announced that some 60 percent of primate species were threatened with extinction. All these facts felt like signposts to an increasingly hopeless future for the planet. And now, here was a minifable suggesting that our attempts to preserve even mere traces of the bounty around us might fall apart, too.
The seed vault is perhaps the best-known project in a growing global campaign to cache endangered phenomena for safekeeping. Fortunately — the leak snafu notwithstanding — scientists, governments and even private companies have become quite good over the last decade at these efforts to bank nature. The San Diego Zoo’s Frozen Zoo cryogenically preserves living cell cultures, sperm, eggs and embryos for some 1,000 species in liquid nitrogen. Inside the National Ice Core Laboratory, in Lakewood, Colo., a massive freezer contains roughly 62,000 feet’s worth of rods of ice from rapidly melting glaciers and ice sheets in Antarctica, Greenland and North America. The Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington maintains the world’s largest collection of frozen exotic-animal milk, from mammals large (orcas) and small (critically endangered fruit bats), in order to help researchers figure out how to nourish the most vulnerable members of any species: babies. An international project called Amphibian Ark engages in ex situ conservation by relocating amphibians, the most endangered class of animal, indoors for safekeeping and sperm collection.
A growing consensus among scientists holds that we now live in the Anthropocene, an epoch defined by humanity’s impact on planetary ecosystems. We are responsible for the current die-off of species, not some asteroid or volcanic eruption. The changes go far beyond animal disappearance: We’ve altered the composition of the atmosphere, shifted the chemistry of the oceans. In mere decades we’ve managed to distort a biological, chemical and physical reality that was relatively constant for millenniums. And now, in the face of these unfathomable transformations, we are trying desperately to hang onto and preserve what remains. Academics have even taken to studying the psychology of this human response — one such book, for example, is titled “The Anthropology of Extinction: Essays on Culture and Species Death.” In certain ways, our environmental banks are cabinets of curiosity for the Anthropocene age, tributes to the fantastical magnificence of the world in this geologic moment just as that moment is passing.
We build banks to better understand, but also perhaps to save, our disappearing world. The plan is to study these specimens now but also to deliver them to the future, when scientists will presumably be more advanced than we are, technologically — and hopefully smarter. Geneticists can already clone animals; breed genetic diversity back into species at the brink of extinction via in vitro fertilization; rewrite genomes; and fabricate synthetic DNA. Glaciologists reconstruct ancient climate and atmospheric patterns (and predict future ones) by studying molecules trapped in ice. Marine biologists grow threatened corals in underwater nurseries. Botanists recently sprouted a delicate, white-flowered plant from genetic material inside seeds buried by squirrels in the Siberian permafrost 32,000 years ago. What will we be capable of in 10,000 years, or even 100?
But the world, as always, is changing — and now we’re fomenting and accelerating that process in ways we don’t fully understand. The banks themselves are vulnerable to that change. All manner of things can go wrong: power outages, faulty backup generators, fires, floods, earthquakes, contamination, liquid-nitrogen shortages, war, theft, neglect. In early April, a freezer failure at a University of Alberta cold-storage facility allowed some 590 feet of ice cores to melt, turning tens of thousands of years of frozen clues about the earth’s climate into puddles that one glaciologist, surveying the sad aftermath, likened to a swimming-pool changing room. The associated data that indicates what’s in these vaults — the genomes, the origin stories — could be hacked, corrupted, lost or just formatted in such a way as to be inscrutable to those who might try to decipher it later. These are the kind of anxieties that Oliver Ryder, a director at the San Diego Zoo’s Global Institute for Conservation Research, turns over in his mind in the middle of the night. “It is not, ‘Is something bad going to happen?’” he told me. “Over time, bad things will happen. They always do.” MALIA WOLLAN
Svalbard Global Seed Vault, Spitsbergen Island, Norway
Deep under the rock and permafrost of Plataberget Mountain, researchers have amassed what they hope might serve as a backup copy of the world’s agricultural crops. Stacked inside cavernous, ice-crusted chambers, these seeds contain the genetic diversity necessary to breed new varieties able to withstand the vagaries of a changing climate.
On its shelves are 160,000 varieties of rice, like those seen here, as well as thousands of essential grains and legumes — including some from Syria, which will be used to re-establish food production there once the fighting stops.
Amphibian Ark, various locations
No one has seen a Panamanian golden frog in the wild since 2009; the species is among many being ravaged by the deadly chytrid fungus. The frog at left, at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, was captured 15 years ago and is considered a “founder.” His offspring are helping to rebuild the species in captivity. On the right is a female, her abdomen swollen with eggs.
Coral Restoration Foundation, Florida Keys
Depending on the coral species, researchers might let a specimen grow to the size of a softball or a cantaloupe in the nursery before replanting it. Coral reefs are some of the richest ecosystems on the planet; despite being present on less than 2 percent of the ocean floor, they provide food and shelter to about a quarter of all known marine species.
National Lab for Genetic Resources Preservation, Fort Collins, Colo.
Most corals are hermaphroditic; one way they reproduce is by releasing tiny, floating packets that contain both sperm and eggs. When reefs die off and become fragmented, it is harder for corals to reproduce naturally. Researchers preserve sex cells cryogenically for future breeding.
Exotic-Animal Milk Bank, Washington
Milk samples from a giant anteater, whose species has declined by 30 percent over the last 10 years. Milk is essential to the survival of mammals; along with basic nutrition, it contains hormones, microbes and molecules critical to immune function.
The Frozen Zoo, San Diego
The living cells of Kamilah, a female western lowland gorilla, age 40, are also preserved in the Frozen Zoo.
U.S. National Ice Core Laboratory, Lakewood, Colo.
The cross-section of an ice core at left is from the South Pole, taken from a depth of about 5,300 feet and estimated to be about 50,000 years old. The brown and gray layers of the processed ice core at right are bits of ash deposited by a volcanic eruption some 22,000 years ago.
Spencer Lowell is a photographer based in Los Angeles. He last photographed Mark Zuckerberg for a cover story about Facebook.
Malia Wollan is the Tip columnist for the magazine. Her last article was about the quest to make a naturally blue M&M.
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