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更新时间:2017-7-16 10:48:47 来源:纽约时报中文网 作者:佚名

Arks of the Apocalypse

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.

去年10月一个异常温暖的夜晚,北极附近的一个挪威小岛上,一名维修工人最先发现了那些水。湍急的水流竞相涌入斯瓦尔巴全球种子库(Svalbard Global Seed Vault)的入口隧道,这个存储设施位于一座山侧面下挖大约400英尺处(约合120米)。在温度通常远低于冰点的时节,一场风暴带来了倾盆大雨;由于被水泡过的电力系统发生短路,现场的电力抽水机成了无用之物。这处藏身地下的安全屋内储存着超过5000种重要粮食作物的种子,其中包括数十万个变种的麦和稻。它应该是一个坚不可摧的所在,是为植物打造的当代诺亚方舟,是抵御气候变化和灾难的救生筏。当地的消防人员帮助把水抽出隧道,直至温度下降,水结成冰。随后,山脚下的村民带着铲子和斧头赶过来,人工凿碎冰层。

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.

在一场日益扩大、旨在贮藏起濒危的一切并加以妥善照管的全球性行动中,斯瓦尔巴全球种子库或许是最著名的项目。幸运的是——尽管出了进水这种纰漏——在过去十年间,科学界、各国政府乃至私人企业已经变得非常善于从事这种帮自然做备份的工作。圣迭戈动物园(San Diego Zoo)的冷冻动物园(Frozen Zoo),把大约1000个物种的活体细胞培养物、精子、卵子和胚胎低温保存在液态氮中。科罗拉多州莱克伍德的国家冰芯实验室(National Ice Core Laboratory)中,一个巨大的冰柜内盛放着总共将近6.2万英尺的冰柱,来自南极洲、格陵兰岛和北美州那些正在融化的冰川和冰盖。华盛顿的国家动物园(Smithsonian’s National Zoo),是世界上保有冷冻的野生动物乳汁最多的地方,有的乳汁来自大型哺乳动物(逆戟鲸),也有的来自小型哺乳动物(极度濒危的果蝠),旨在帮助研究人员弄清如何培育任何物种最脆弱的成员——幼崽。一个名为“两栖动物方舟”(Amphibian Ark)的项目致力于进行迁地保育,把动物当中最为濒危的两栖动物迁入室内,进行保护和采精。

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.”

收集正在消亡的东西似乎是人类天性中的冲动。文艺复兴时期,富有的商人和贵族在所谓的珍奇屋里展示个人收藏的乳齿象骨头和化石,以及各种风干、腌制或填充的动物标本。有些人类学家认为,他们这个学科的出现是因为欧洲人开始对自己用传染病和枪炮消灭掉的土著产生了某种怀旧之情。这种情绪驱使他们加紧收集人种志、正在消亡的语言,有时甚至是活着的人种。国际生物和环境储存库协会(International Society for Biological and Environmental Repositories)的成员包括约1300个生物样本库,收藏有各种病毒乃至云豹的生殖细胞等样本。该协会主席齐西斯·科兹拉基迪斯(Zisis Kozlakidis)在接受采访时对我说,目前正出现一股收藏热潮,他将之比作国际空间竞赛。他说,“人们强烈地感觉到,不等理解其中的意义,我们就开始快速地失去生物多样性。”

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.

科学家们日益达成一个共识,那就是,我们现在生活在人类纪,这个时代的特点就是人类对地球生态系统的影响。是我们造成了目前那些生物的消亡,而非小行星或火山爆发。变化远不止动物的消亡,我们改变了大气的构成和海洋的化学成分。在区区数十年时间里,我们扭曲了几千年来相对稳定的生物、化学和物理现实。现在,面临难以捉摸的转变,我们在竭力守住和保护剩下的东西。学术界甚至开始研究人类产生这种反应的心理,比如,有一本书名叫《灭绝人类学:关于文化和物种死亡的文章》(The Anthropology of Extinction: Essays on Culture and Species Death)。从某些角度讲,我们的环境标本库就是人类纪的珍奇屋,在这个正在消逝的地质时刻,它们对这个世界惊人的壮美献上敬意。

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.”

但是,这个世界正在变化,一如既往。现在,我们正以自己不能完全理解的方式启动和加速这个过程。那些样本库本身就容易受到这些变化的影响。什么都可能出错:断电、备用发电机故障、火灾、洪水、地震、污染,液体氮短缺、战争、盗窃、以及疏忽。今年4月初,艾伯塔大学(University of Alberta)的冷藏设备出现故障,导致约590英尺的冰芯融化,冰冻了数万年的地球气候线索变成了一滩滩的水,评估这一事故可悲后果的冰川学家说,整个房间变成了游泳池更衣室。指示基因组和起源故事等样本库内容的相关数据可能会被黑客攻击、破坏、遗失,或者将来试图解码的人无法破解它们的保存格式。这些都是圣迭戈动物园(San Diego Zoo)全球保护研究所(Global Institute for Conservation Research)所长奥利弗·赖德(Oliver Ryder)在深夜担忧的事情。“问题不是,‘糟糕的事情会发生吗?’”他对我说。“而是糟糕的事情迟早会发生。从来都是这样。”