State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

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Save those Acorns for the Apocalypse

by Josephine Decker

When we prepare for Apocalypse, we are often making guesses.  Will it be a nuclear war?  A slow heating up of the planet?  A surprising visit from a meteorite? A killing off of the diversity of flora and fauna until only monocultured crops and people still exist, extremely susceptible to virus, disease, injury?   Whatever the cause, a few people are preparing for what happens after life (or a lot of life) on our planet is wiped out.

Scientists are finding ways to prepare for end times.

Recently, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault had its fourth birthday.  The vault houses about 740,000 samples of seeds – from wild cucumbers to weedy rice to daisies.  According to the Global Crop Trust, which helps support the vault, Norway is an ideal place for a bunch of frozen seeds… because Norway is cold. Stored at -18 degrees Celsius in an area that is “remote, severe, and inhabited by polar bears,” seeds in the vault offer protection if man-made or natural disaster destroys a significant portion of plant populations.  Various seed vaults around the world deposit samples as insurance that their own collection won’t be wiped out.

So — will we ever need to open the vault?  Might we face a disaster that will wipe out many species? I suppose you could say we already are.

No giant meteor has sent us into an apocalyptic extinction period, but climate change is having unprecedented and rapid consequences on species’ populations.

Svalbard Global Seed Vault, photo by Mari Tefre

Just this February, scientists at UC Berkeley, found that alpine chipmunks of Yosemite National Parks have suffered a massive loss of genetic diversity over the last 90 years – making them more vulnerable to the effects of inbreeding, disease and other problems that threaten species survival, the researchers said.

In addition, Carsten Nowak, a conservation biologist at the Senckenberg Research Institutes and Natural History Museum in Gelnhausen, Germany, performed a study last summer of evolutionary significant units (ESUs): the population within a species that is genetically distinct from the rest of its kind. The scientists focused on aquatic insects who need cold water and have a limited ability to travel.  According to nature.com, “To measure genetic diversity, Nowak’s team sequenced genes in the animals’ mitochondria — energy-generating cellular organelles that have their own small genome. This allowed the authors to divide each species into a number of evolutionary significant units (ESUs).”

Their research questioned whether the insects would be able to tolerate higher temperatures and/or be able to travel.

The answer – not really.

The population as a whole might be able to survive, but the team projected that 79% of ESU’s in the population would be extinct by 2080, hindering the species ability to continue to adapt to change.

While aquatic insects won’t fare well with climate change, other insects may fare too well.  Some scientists worry that certain varieties of insect may enjoy the warming climate so much that their rapid propagation will wipe out entire plant species.  And by adapting quickly to warming climates themselves, plants may suffer untold losses to their genetic diversity – which would offer them fewer chances at adaptation down the line.

So, whether climate changes increases or decreases your population of interest, the moral of the story:

Keep a few acorns in the bank.

Josephine Decker is a Brooklyn-based filmmaker and performance artist, whose work addresses social issues through magical realism.  She takes night classes in the CERC program at Columbia.

Science for the Planet: In these short video explainers, discover how scientists and scholars across the Columbia Climate School are working to understand the effects of climate change and help solve the crisis.
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