Evacced to Kandor


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The new home may be a bit more spartan than expected. For a few million seed accessions of domesticated crops, it’s a bunker deep inside a sandstone mountain on an Arctic island. For the Kihansi spray toad, it’s a rack of plastic boxes in the Toledo Zoo.

And if the desperate plans in motion work out, for the world’s corals it will be a vat of liquid nitrogen at the Whipsnade Zoo in Bedfordshire, England, with a backup freezer at the Smithsonian.

momi   A seed of wild rice – Mitsuaki Tanabe.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is intended as a backup for the various national and regional seed repositories in case of disaster, whether natural like those that hit the Phillipines and Honduras, or entirely manmade, like the recent destruction of the seed repositories in Iraq – in a lovely little town named Abu Ghraib – and Afghanistan.

It is supposed to be reassuring that the vault is 430 feet above current sea level, so that it can survive extreme ocean rise. But what use exactly will these seeds be in a world – the world planned for in construction of the vault – where sea level has risen by, say, a mere 200 feet? The countries that deposited their national inventory of seeds and have rights to them are unlikely to find them of much use in that world.

Among other problems – like those about access – future desperate scavengers may wonder what happened to all the landraces and crop wild relatives – the ancestors and near relatives of these crops that have survived for all this time until we came along by virtue of their resistance to pests and diseases and their potential to optimally exploit their environment – traits we very well might wish we had available for breeding or some other mode of access.

Sooner or later, seeds must be taken out of storage and grown out, replenished. In the repository’s lab this all happens in the absence of evolutionary pressures – pests, predators, diseases, all the drivers. After a few hundred years there may be no world for them to return to, not because it has been destroyed but because it has changed. It is the nature of the world outside the museum that it is dynamic.

To put it very simply herbariums are not forests, and a frightening number of normal everyday people no longer seem to understand the difference, let alone the blinkered morons in the governing class.

spraytoadd   Kihansi spray toad; photo ┬ęTim Herman

We learn from the 2009 IUCN Red List update that the Kihansi spray toad has officially entered the limbo of the Extinct in the Wild.

The popular media renditions of the toad’s plight reveal a subtle, pervasive bias: it’s flatly stated that the toad died out from chytridiomycosis, never mind the IUCN’s observation that

The serious decline and extinction of this species appears related to the Lower Kihansi Hydropower Project, involving the construction of a dam in 2000 upstream on the Kihansi River, which cut off 90% of the original water flow to the gorge, thereby hugely reducing the volume of spray, particularly in the dry season, as well as altering the vegetational composition.

Gee, could it possibly be that the loss of 90% of its water, vegetative cover, and insect food supply might present a little problem for an amphibian in equatorial Africa? The saga of the attempt to provide artificial spray supplements, comical in its tragic, ridiculous way, is documented at the IUCN KSP link above, and in much greater detail by Kevin Krajick in Science: The Lost World of the Kihansi Toad. The most pathetic part of the story is that there were alternate plans for the dam and diversion scheme that would have returned large volumes of water to the river above the falls, but in the absence of anything like an environmental impact assessment they were shelved.

In news that one would think might shock the public – if anyone bothered to tell them – some of the folks most familiar with coral reefs and the underlying ocean chemistry that sustain them have gone public with their belief – their certainty – that it is too late to save much of anything in situ. A crash program is proposed to save frozen samples of all existing corals, a thousand specimens of each. And let’s be clear: this means diverting resources from the hopeless task of in situ conservation.

“Unless something very remarkable happens during December’s climate talks, the world’s reefs will be reduced to slime-covered rubble by 2050,” said Dr Alex Rogers, of the Institute of Zoology, London.

Since Dr. Rogers made that statement, everyone has thrown in the towel and decided that Copenhagen will be another place holder, and that maybe we’ll do something in a year, or two, or ten. The most positive statement at Copenhagen will be the thoroughly justified walkout by the African Union. What is the point of sitting through a farce?

Here’s a discussion of the basics of coral cryopreservation (3-page pdf)

Success varies by species. If all were sampled and stored, some will die. So what is returned to the imagined more hospitable, less acidic future sea in, very optimistically, a few hundred years – when? where? how? with what resources? – will be a selection, an abridged version. As to how the new reefs are suposed to thrive absent their former community of fish, etc, well that is just one of those details.

   Beamed from the moon?

Once we start down this road, it is hard to see where we draw the line but surely it would be somewhere this side of the absurd proposal for a doomsday vault on the moon complete with not just seed banks – and presumably a frozen zoo – but information on the basic building blocks of civilization – metallurgy and the like.

It would work something like this: In a postapocalyptic world awash in starving refugees, you would plug the computer you don’t have into a power source you don’t have, enter some long lost password, and voila, access information on how to smelt metals or grow wheat which you also don’t have. Without even considering the problem of gaining physical access to the seed bank, the idea is so ludicrous it needn’t be belabored. Wouldn’t a few hundred copies of a book on metallurgy, scattered somewhere in the rubble of our former cities, be a little handier? Or is is posited that no one will remember how to read, only how to access computer files on the moon?

kandorBriefly, around the age of ten, I was fascinated with Superman comics. A friend and I met in the alley to trade them. We weren’t collectors, nor were we interested in the story lines about bad guys or Clark Kent’s life. All we cared about was the backstory: every detail of life on Krypton. Nothing excited us more than Kandor, the city on Krypton stolen, shrunken, and imprisoned in a bottle by the evil Brainiac before the planet’s destruction. I forget how it came to rest among the bric-a-brac scattered around the Fortress of Solitude, awaiting the day when Superman would figure out what to do with it.

Later I came to understand that there are real heroes, like Stchukin and Ivanov who starved to death guarding the seed repository at the Vavilov Institute during the siege of the frozen fortress of Leningrad. But they are rarer than sightings of Superman these days.


3 Responses to “Evacced to Kandor”

  1. cometman Says:

    Very good post again melvin. Really sad that people even have to think about taking measures like these.

    I did just run across this small improvement – Brown pelican taken off endangered list. Hopefully that doesn’t also coincide with more of the Gulf coastline being opened up for development, oil drilling etc.

  2. artemis54 Says:

    A perfect storrm: The IUCN update, a leaden sky, a pitcher of absinthe, a bowl of phenobarbital, a plastic bag, maybe a little Thomas Hardy.

    The smile on your mouth was the deadest thing
    Alive enough to have strength to die;

    Life is good.

  3. artemis54 Says:

    An explanation of The Ballad of Sammy’s Bar from its author Cyril Tawney (click on “in Depth”)

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