A tot el món, els científics estan construint reserves de tot, curses per preservar un ordre natural que està desapareixent ràpidament. Un creixent consens entre els científics sosté que ara vivim al Antropocè, una època definida per impacte de la humanitat sobre els ecosistemes planetaris. Nosaltres som responsables de l’actual mortaldat de les espècies, no un asteroide o una erupció volcànica. Els canvis van molt més enllà de la desaparició dels animals: hem alterat la composició de l’atmosfera, vam canviar la química dels oceans. En qüestió de dècades hem aconseguit distorsionar una realitat física biològica, química i que era relativament constant des de fa mil·lennis. I ara, de cara a aquestes transformacions insondables, estem tractant desesperadament d’aferrar i preservar el que queda: llavors a la illa Spitsbergen en Noruega, arca d’amfibis a diversos llocs, restauració de coral a Florida, preservació de recursos genètics a Colorado, animals exòtics a Washington, parc zoològic congelat a Sant Diego, o laboratori nacional de gel a Colorado.
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.
CreditSpencer Lowell for The New York Times
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?
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.
This subterranean safe house can hold up to 2.25 billion seeds and currently contains some 5,000 species of essential food crops. The facility’s temperature is maintained at just below 0 degrees Farenheit, which is cold enough to keep seeds viable for decades, and perhaps even thousands of years.
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
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.
National Lab for Genetic Resources Preservation, Fort Collins, Colo.
The National Lab for Genetic Resources Preservations in Fort Collins, Colo., is run by the Agricultural Research Service of the United States Department of Agriculture. Here, a researcher checks coral sperm cryogenically frozen and collected by Smithsonian scientists and stored alongside other genetic samples at the lab. This summer, they will grow coral from this cryopreserved and thawed sperm and, for the first time, transplant it into the wild.
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
The Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington stores 16,000 frozen samples of milk from approximately 180 species, making it the world’s largest collection of frozen exotic-animal milk in the world. Here, researchers milk a critically endangered Bornean orangutan named Batang. In addition to breast-feeding her infant, Redd, Batang permits regular milking for the milk bank.Continue reading the main story
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
A 10-foot-by-20-foot room inside the San Diego Zoo keeps the living cells of more than 1,000 species from around the world — the Hawaiian bird called the po‘ouli, which is believed to be extinct; the northern white rhino; the western lowland gorilla; the Somali wild ass — preserved in liquid nitrogen at minus 320 degrees. This is, says Oliver Ryder, the zoo’s director of conservation genetics, “the greatest density of vertebrate biodiversity anywhere in the galaxy.”
The living cells of Amani, a female southern white rhino about 9 years old. When thawed, the cells can be used to grow new rhino cells.
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.
This 55,000-cubic-foot, minus-33-degree freezer holds some 62,000 feet of ice rods augured with machines out of ice sheets and glaciers. The study of air bubbles, dust and ash particles, isotopes, gases and organic materials frozen in the ice helps scientists understand past climates and predict future ones. The oldest ice stored in the lab is 417,000 years old and comes from Princess Elizabeth Land, Antarctica. Another core, 11,168 feet long and drilled from the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, is an archive of atmospheric history going back 68,000 years. In a nearby decontaminated “clean room,” researchers bundled in winter coats and hats slice the cores, measure their electrical conductivity and analyze individual ice crystals using high-resolution macrophotography. To better understand long-ago climates, ice core scientists, engineers, and drillers from 24 countries are currently searching for a suitable site to drill a 1.5 million year old or older ice core.
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.