Svalbard Global Seed Vault, Spitsbergen Island, Norway. Photo: Spencer Lowell / The New York Times

By Malia Wollan
18 July 2017

(The New York Times) -- 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 mini-fable 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.” […]

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.” […]

Amphibian Ark, various locations

For the Amphibian Ark, an international collaboration among scientists at more than 180 research facilities in 32 countries, herpetologists breed and maintain what they call “captive insurance colonies” like this one at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo with the aim of saving amphibians from a global die-off so severe that many regard it as an “extinction crisis.” They intend to someday release the specimens back into the wild.

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

The Coral Restoration Foundation sustains the world’s largest collection of ocean-nursery-raised corals, which in the wild are increasingly endangered by overfishing, agricultural runoff, warming water temperatures and ocean acidification. Located a few miles off the coast of Key Largo, Fla., more than 400 coral “trees” grow here in the Tavernier Coral Nursery, including five threatened species.

Having pioneered a method for growing coral on treelike structures made from PVC pipes, the foundation grows coral in an underwater nursery for six to nine months before the specimens are taken to the ocean, glued into place and used to repopulate faltering reefs.

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. [more]

Arks of the Apocalypse

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