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Our future is guarded by polar bears
June 19, 2006 8:25 AM   Subscribe

The last hope of life on earth: Svalbard. Most of humanity depends on just 12 plant species, down from over 7,000 historically. Fortunately, seeds can be viable for up to thousands of years, and seed banks have already preserved many species, including the entire plant population of Antarctica. But with seed banks being destroyed as the result of wars and accident, Norway has has begun work on an underground facility, protected by polar bears, in the Arctic permafrost that is designed to hold millions of seeds, as "final safety net" for humanity.
posted by blahblahblah (36 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
Iorek Byrnison, we're counting on you.
posted by Zozo at 8:32 AM on June 19, 2006


I think the living (seeds) would envy the dead....
posted by TwoWordReview at 8:35 AM on June 19, 2006


Cool. Great post.
posted by dazed_one at 8:36 AM on June 19, 2006


In 1972, at the first United Nations conference on the human environment, the conservation of crop genetic resources was identified as a necessary target to underwrite food security. Early experience of seed banking had focused mainly on a few crop species (33). It was then unknown whether the same technology would apply more widely to seed of wild species. RBG Kew's Seed Bank was established at Wakehurst Place in Sussex to discover whether the seed banking of the 250,000 wild species, not addressed elsewhere, was feasible and appropriate (34). This initiative was a far-sighted action in 1974 when conservation was a voice crying in the wilderness. By 1992, when Agenda 21 at the Rio Earth Summit called for improved methods for the ex situ conservation of all the plant kingdom (35), RBG Kew had some answers, and the world's largest and most diverse seed bank devoted to wild species conservation operating at internationally approved standards (36-38). Thus, the Bank contained 10,000 accessions of seeds from 4,000 species (39), representing 10 and 53% of the world's plant genera and families, respectively.

A common problem with seed banks is that they do not promote genetic diversity, only maintain a very small percentage of it.

With environmental devastation a distinct possibility within the next 50-100 years, the best idea proposed so far to keep the human species from going extinct is probably not seed banks but a worldwide, concerted, Manhattan Project-level genetic engineering operation to breed strains tolerant to higher growth temperatures and levels of carbon dioxide.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 8:43 AM on June 19, 2006


Question: how do I submit my seed?

Followup: do they provide...um, materials?

Thanking you in advance.
posted by CheeseburgerBrown at 8:48 AM on June 19, 2006


Blazecock Pileon - With environmental devastation a distinct possibility within the next 50-100 years, the best idea proposed so far to keep the human species from going extinct is probably not seed banks but a worldwide, concerted, Manhattan Project-level genetic engineering operation to breed strains tolerant to higher growth temperatures and levels of carbon dioxide.

I don't think this is al all true - plants actually grow better with additional carbon dioxide, and the temperature differences are not extreme enough to matter. In fact, a number of studies suggest that crop yields will increase. The issue is more the effects of weather changes like droughts or flooding than crops that can't tolerate the conditions of global warming.
posted by blahblahblah at 8:51 AM on June 19, 2006


Longyearbyen, the main town on the island, was first settled by a Bostonian, John Munroe Longyear in 1906. "byen" is Norwegian for "city". Ironically coal mining was the major industry in Lonyearbyen until recently. Global destruction indeed.
posted by stbalbach at 8:51 AM on June 19, 2006


"But the effect may be a double-edged sword; the increase in yield appears to be linked to a decrease in the nutritional value of these crops."
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:00 AM on June 19, 2006


MetaFilter: This is not nearly as sexy as a panda going extinct
posted by Count Ziggurat at 9:05 AM on June 19, 2006


Are we supposed to trust polar bears to protect these resources? Does Stephen Colbert know about this?
posted by Kirth Gerson at 9:12 AM on June 19, 2006


The best thing about this is the fact they are promoting the fact it's guarded by polar bears.

How can it not be brilliant?
posted by knapah at 9:21 AM on June 19, 2006


Are we supposed to trust polar bears to protect these resources?

Dude, haven't you read "His Dark Materials"? Polar Bears are both badass AND honorable
posted by Greg Nog at 9:24 AM on June 19, 2006


Can we trust polar bears to protect sexy pandas? I predict lots of "genetic diversity" going on there...
posted by qvantamon at 9:24 AM on June 19, 2006


Will the polar bears have lasers?
posted by scheptech at 9:30 AM on June 19, 2006


So... what's the keycode combination to get in? Though it's not likely I'd survive a global catastrophe, I'd hate to trek all the way up there only to find myself locked out.

The more I think about it, I'm only half-kidding about this. How do we get in?

Great article - really fascinating!
posted by avoision at 9:34 AM on June 19, 2006


so the island full of polar bears in lost is really the last great storage space of seeds for mankind?

It all makes sense now....
posted by slapshot57 at 9:36 AM on June 19, 2006


So in the wake of a global cataclysm, someone is going to be expected to fight their way past a bunch of polar bears to get to the seeds that will save humanity? That's a tall order.

Someone call Troy Hurtubise.
posted by hypocritical ross at 9:51 AM on June 19, 2006


Hope Monsanto didn't infiltrate, after all they've done to push terminator seeds on farmers.

I'm glad there is an heirloom seed movement.
posted by nickyskye at 9:57 AM on June 19, 2006


Until the seeds are protected in orbiting satellite stations around the earth, I won't feel safe.

Course, we'll have to train the polar bears in EVAs.
posted by Atreides at 10:23 AM on June 19, 2006


The more I think about it, I'm only half-kidding about this. How do we get in?

You have to call ahead on the Lodestone Resonator.
posted by freebird at 10:24 AM on June 19, 2006


Dude, haven't you read "His Dark Materials"? Polar Bears are both badass AND honorable

C'mon - that's fantasy! This is . . .




what is this, really?
posted by Kirth Gerson at 10:28 AM on June 19, 2006


...a worldwide, concerted, Manhattan Project-level genetic engineering operation to breed strains tolerant to higher growth temperatures and levels of carbon dioxide.

Unfortunately this misses a very important point, as does the overall project of "saving seeds". While the genetic material of wild organisms is obviously a necessary component, healthy ecosystems depend on complex inter-relationships among many differenct organisms, of which we are only dimly aware. So imagining that at some point in the future (after the collapse?) we're going to be able to re-introduce these organisms begs the question of how we are going to re-establish all of the networks of multi-dimensional interactions which constitute a functioning ecosystem, when we don't have anything but the crudest understanding of these networks. It's like trying to preserve the Taj Mahal by saving a sample of each variety of tile, but not the plans for how many of each and their precise relationships.

Instead of imagining that we will be able to save ourselves after we've well and truly fucked everything up, perhaps we should be focussing on not fucking everything up...
posted by dinsdale at 10:29 AM on June 19, 2006


I wonder how long the place will stay preserved if all human interaction is gone. They say that it probably won'e need the climate control in the summer, but if all the people are dead who normally control the power there will be no choice.
posted by Megafly at 11:44 AM on June 19, 2006


i am just glad this thread is full of references to His Dark Materials, as it should be.

"Instead of imagining that we will be able to save ourselves after we've well and truly fucked everything up, perhaps we should be focussing on not fucking everything up..."
- dinsdale

This is so right. This plan seems kind of backwards to me.
posted by amethysts at 3:19 PM on June 19, 2006


"byen" is Norwegian for "city".

<useless nitpick>

Actually, "byen" is Norwegian for "the city". Scandinavian languages put the definite article at the end of a word, so the Norwegian word for "city" would be "by".

</useless nitpick>
posted by spazzm at 4:29 PM on June 19, 2006


Spazzm - superlative nitpickery. I've forgotten it already.

What if your Daemon was a polar bear?
posted by Sparx at 5:01 PM on June 19, 2006


"This is so right. This plan seems kind of backwards to me."

Ah, but this plan is actually realistic. Unlike all the "make sure humans don't fuck up the Earth" plans.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 6:28 PM on June 19, 2006


The article that says that CO2 increases are a "double-edged sword" for agriculture goes on to state that the yield increase does not make up for the loss of nutritional value.

So overall, bad.

And more importantly, it does not touch on the climate changes that will result from global warming; IIRC arid and rainforest areas will become even more so, overall global arid land will increase, more harsh weather systems damaging crops, etc. To suggest that the trends of global warming will be even remotely beneficial for agriculture is dubious at best.
posted by mek at 7:35 PM on June 19, 2006


Is it just me, or are the Scandinavians the smartest, coolest people on earth?
posted by frogan at 7:40 PM on June 19, 2006


Scandinavians, meh. Polar bears, pfft! Every scifi fanboy knows that our last, best hope will be Huey, Dewey, and Louie:
"On this first day of a new century we humbly beg forgiveness and dedicate these last forests of our once beautiful nation to the hope that they will one day return and grace our foul earth. Until that day may God bless these gardens and the brave men who care for them." — President Anderson
Drones, too.
posted by cenoxo at 9:24 PM on June 19, 2006


Is it just me, or are the Scandinavians the smartest, coolest people on earth?

No, actually, you're absolutely right. We are.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 9:36 PM on June 19, 2006


"...that our last, best hope will be Huey, Dewey, and Louie"

I saw that movie on something like the Friday Night Movie of the Week or whatever it was back in those days of the Big Three Networks. Anyway, I was young enough that I cried and cried when the little robots were killed. It really traumatized me.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 10:50 PM on June 19, 2006


Is it just me, or are the Scandinavians the smartest, coolest people on earth?

Don't be fooled by the Scandinavian propaganda.

They seem nice at first, but they'll turn on you like THAT. One day you wake up and your car, your dog, your wife and the entire plant population of Antarctica is gone.

Fooken scandis.
posted by spazzm at 11:09 PM on June 19, 2006


There was a front page article on this in the Seattle Times, linking to a half-page story about it further in.

Not once was it mentioned that food-crop species are being lost right now due to the increasing monoculture practices of modern farming. the WHOLE DAMN ARTICLE was gee-whiz crap about how it might save us in the future if the earth was struck by a giant meteor, or if there was nuclear war or something. It was gushing with praise at the foresight and lofty goal, but you came off thinking it was pie-in-the-sky insurance that has no real-world use except in the event of full-on Armageddon.

It was unbelievable. A one paragraph FPP on Meta contained a more useful description of the real-world purpose than half a page of newsprint. I've seen a lot of this kind of missing the trees-for-the-forest style before, it seems quite cultural and I can't help but think this is an especially American kind of perspective. Am I wrong? Was newspaper coverage elsewhere as moronic?
posted by -harlequin- at 11:49 PM on June 19, 2006


Methuselah, the palm tree:
...the seedling growing in the black pot in Solowey's nursery on this kibbutz in Israel's Arava desert is 2,000 years old -- more than twice as old as the 900-year-old biblical character who lent his name to the young tree. It is the oldest seed ever known to produce a viable young tree.

The seed that produced Methuselah was discovered during archaeological excavations at King Herod's palace on Mount Masada, near the Dead Sea. Its age has been confirmed by carbon dating. Scientists hope that the unique seedling will eventually yield vital clues to the medicinal properties of the fruit of the Judean date tree, which was long thought to be extinct.
It's just one example, but perhaps Mother Nature won't need as much help as we think.
posted by cenoxo at 11:50 PM on June 19, 2006


I can't help but think this is an especially American kind of perspective.
It's the Corporate Worldview. Corporate Media (most all of the mass-market media in the U.S.) will not criticize Corporate Agro in any meaniingful way. That would be, I don't know - rude? Same holds for Corporate Pharma, Corporate Healthcare, Corporate Government, whatever. Follow the money.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:15 AM on June 20, 2006


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