“Arks of the Apocalypse”

U.S. National Ice Core Laboratory, Lakewood, Colo. photo credit: Spencer Lowell for The New York Times

Thanks again to the New York Times for highlighting the global nature of this scientific “call to arms” to save not only data, but genetic and organic material as a back-up plan for future generations. From the Svalbard Global Seed bank in Norway, to sperm banks for coral, endangered wildlife, and even glacial ice – these archives are meant to provide both a life line to the future and answers about the past.

The fragility of each project is evident as Science itself has come under attack from current public policy, which doesn’t appear to see the irony of their denial in the face of facts about climate change.

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.

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.

It seems to be a human impulse to collect things just as they’re vanishing. During the Renaissance, wealthy merchants and aristocrats exhibited their personal compendiums of mastodon bones, fossils and all manner of dried, pickled and stuffed creatures in what were called cabinets of curiosity. Some anthropologists believe their discipline emerged when Europeans began to experience a sort of nostalgia for the native populations they had wiped out with their diseases and guns. That feeling sent them scurrying off to gather up ethnographies, dying languages and sometimes even living subjects. Zisis Kozlakidis, the president of the International Society for Biological and Environmental Repositories, an organization that represents some 1,300 biobanks containing specimens like viruses and the reproductive cells of clouded leopards, told me a collecting rush is underway, which he likened to an international space race. “There is,” he said, “a very intense feeling that we’re losing biodiversity quicker than we can understand it.”

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?

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