The New York Times

Arks of the Apocalypse

From The New York Times Magazine

ALL AROUND THE WORLD, SCIENTISTS ARE BUILDING REPOSITORIES OF EVERYTHING FROM SEEDS TO ICE TO MAMMAL MILK — RACING TO PRESERVE A NATURAL ORDER THAT’S FAST DISAPPEARING.

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 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 Donald 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% 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, Colorado, 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.”

This article originally appeared in .

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from The New York Times

The New York Times4 min read
How Can I Cure My White Guilt?
A READER LOVES HER BOYFRIEND BUT MISSES OTHER MEN. IS IT BETTER TO COME CLEAN TO HER PARTNER, OR SUPPRESS HER FEELINGS FOREVER? Dear Sugars, My boyfriend of two years is brilliant, supportive, generous and not the least bit jealous. We’re sublimely
The New York Times3 min read
Larry David: What Really Happened at Trump Tower
A transcript of “that” meeting with the Russians surfaces — and a controversy is settled.
The New York Times9 min read
More Strikeouts Than Hits? Welcome to Baseball's Latest Crisis
This could be the first season in major league history to feature more strikeouts than hits, a slowdown that worries many league officials.