Friday, December 28, 2007

Planning Ahead

Hidden away from the world, there is a massive, highly secure, impenetrable vault, 425 feet deep in a frozen mountain on a distant remote island in the Norwegian arctic archipelago of Svalbard close to the north pole. Few people have even heard of these islands. Almost no one ever ventures there.
This hidden vault is impervious to terrorist attack, to earthquakes, to blizzards, to storms, fire, flood, global warming, or nuclear holocaust. Even a direct hit by a medium sized meteor would not penetrate it. Nothing can touch it. It is hidden by its obscurity almost as much as it is hidden by its remoteness, or by its depth inside the mountain. It is so far from the rest of the world of human life, that it might as well be a vault on the moon, or maybe another planet.

What is kept here in this vault so deep under a mountain near the north pole? A very special treasure. something worth more than gold, silver, platinum or diamonds. One that may one day be called upon to save all of mankind.

Seeds. That's right, seeds. It is the Svalbard Global Seed vault. There is room in its massive secure chambers for 4.5 million vacuum-sealed samples of different kinds of grains, and beans, and all manor of plants and crops. Stored for posterity against a potential biological catastrophe.

It turns out that over the 6,000 years of our civilization, we have been growing crops and trying to genetically tune the food crops to the specific types that we eat, but in the process of excluding the ones that don't suit our tastes or our growing season or the wetness or dryness or acidity levels of our soil in any particular region, we have inadvertently eliminated a lot of the biological diversity in the plants that grow on the Earth. And since humanity now inhabits almost every corner of the globe, there are few untouched non-agriculturally tended areas that grow free and wild as nature intended.

For example, potatoes, like many plants now, have become specialized. Ireland is famous for it's potato crops, but soon they will have eliminated all but one type of potato growing there. So it has now become genetically fragile. If any disease or infestation should affect it, it lacks the natural resiliency of genetic diversity to defend against it. In other words, nature normally takes care of these things by simply having a lot of different species of potato, and so if one dies out because some new potato disease wipes them out, there are others that will survive because they were just different enough to out-maneuver that problem.

But, in developing agriculture over the centuries, we have changed the equation that life has been using to survive for millions of years. We have been methodically eliminating all the other types of genetic examples of potato in favor of the ones that produce the most money for crop owners. The largest, fastest-growing, longest growing season, most insect repellent, etc. The cheapest to grow. In our CURRENT environment.

However, species of bugs and diseases are always evolving, and because they are simple organisms, they evolve quicker. If a disease or a bug variation comes up that feeds on the one type of potato we have left, it could potentially wipe that species off the map, and we would lose an important staple of our diet. This risk is there for all crops in the world. Also, there could be major disasters such as floods, fire, hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis, etc. that could wipe out entire regions of the Earth taking important crops with them.

Potatoes originated in the Andes. So that is where we need to go to collect the widest variations of potatoes for preservation since they have been there the longest, and therefore have had the most opportunity to develop genetic diversity. That way, if future scientists need to create a new hardier strain of potato that can overcome some new biological problem, they will have a large sample of genetic diversity to work with to develop the new strain. Think of it as a palette of colors for an artist to paint with. The range of colors you can create are extremely limited if you are missing the basic colors like yellow or red to mix in.

Planning ahead for disaster on a global scale is what these biologists are doing. They have been quietly going around the world collecting samples of every possible kind of grain in Ethiopia, or bean in South America, etc. and processing them and storing them for posterity in that huge vault near the north pole. They are selfless, unsung heroes doing a valuable essential job. There would normally be a temptation in many governments to cut a program like this to cut taxes and win votes. But thankfully, more visionary, long-term thinkers are at work here.

But I think we should expand the vision further. I think we should be doing the same thing with animals and all species of life, not just plants. Maybe we could freeze the embryos of everything from chickens to elephants. From dogs to dragonflys. Even people. We have sperm and embryo banks for people. Why not expand that concept to include all species and store them in a similar vault. But maybe at the other pole this time. Bury it in a vault deep under Antarctica. That way, it is not on property owned by any one country. It's probably unwise to let one country have exclusive care of the future of all life on the planet. A vault like that is probably impervious to any force in the world except the force of politics.

There are roughly 30 million species of animal life on Earth. It will take some time and some effort. We should probably get started. If we could cut the war in Iraq short by just one week, that would probably pay for the whole project. Think of it as a kind of Noah's Ark.

It occurs to me that we should also have a similar vault for our collective knowledge just in case something happens. For one thing, in the event of a major catastrophe where we might have to begin again, we'll need instructions on how to use the stored cells to regenerate the various species and re-grow the plants to repopulate and restore the Earth again.

There is so much of math and science, and geology, and biology, and medicine, and technology, and literature and art and music and poetry even - to be saved for posterity. From architecture, to bridge-building, to space science, to MRIs, to History, to languages, to Zoology. There are millions of books about millions of topics, in hundreds of languages, that are worthy of saving. I think we should have it in magnetic (disk) as well as optical (CD's) as well as microfiche (film) as well as printed forms. So that if the technology exists to read it, it is all accessible and convenient, but if the technology does not exist, then as least a printed version is available. Obviously, the paper/books would have to be stored at temperature and humidity levels that allow it to be preserved indefinitely.

Also, "Rosetta Stone" translations would be necessary too. Tables that translate an identical message into as many different languages so that all the materials are readable and so that all the languages are preserved as well.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if we never have to use these treasure troves of our life and civilization on planet Earth? And wouldn't it be a horrible thing if we DID have to use it, but it didn't exist?

If I had the means, I would start this great project myself. Some things are just necessary.

At some point in the future, it might make sense to create these repositories of our plants, our animals, and our knowledge off-planet. Say on the moon, or Mars. or on Ceres (a large asteroid relatively nearby) It might make sense as a way to ensure the survival of what is on Earth, and also help stage the outward expansion of our life and culture and species into the galaxy.

There are other places on other planets. Perhaps there are some places that have nothing there now but that we could bring life. Who knows? Maybe that's what happened here.


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