Life on Earth has never been ‘invulnerable’. For the past few million years, our planet has been on the receiving end of many catastrophic events that eradicated a substantial portion of life forms from its surface. Scientists believe that those previous extinctions were caused either by violent volcanic eruptions or significant asteroid impacts.
They are almost sure that it was an asteroid impact that initially started the chain of events that resulted in the extinction of the dinosaurs around 60 million years ago.
So, what does it mean for us? Are we next in the queue? And if we are, can we protect our kind or at least preserve our legacy? Below, we will discuss and explore whether or not it’s possible to create Earth’s backup.
Is doomsday Upon Us?
A potentially hazardous object (PHO) is any near-Earth object whose orbit crosses the Earth’s and has a diameter of more than 140 meters. It includes both comets and asteroids. According to CNEOS, about 23,052 near-Earth objects have been discovered so far, out of which close to 2,093 are classified as potentially hazardous objects.
Orbits of Potentially Hazardous Asteroids | Image Courtesy: NASA/JPL
Every year or two, many previously unknown asteroids and comets whizz past Earth. In 2012, one of these asteroids came too close to the Earth, passing by at a distance of just 14,440 kilometers. On Earth, such range might be far enough, but on a cosmic scale, that’s pretty close.
It is not just the asteroids and comet impacts that can erase life from the Earth humans themselves play an essential role in the process. In a study conducted in 2014, the researchers found out that the extinction rate of species is now 1000x higher than before humans came into existence.
Though we cannot see what’s in there for us in the future, it doesn’t mean that we cannot be prepared for it. We can act to stop climate change, put an advanced asteroid-tracking system in place, which can alarm us months before any impending encounter with asteroid or comet. And most importantly, develop a reliable means to deflect any extraterrestrial ‘thing’ that is on a collision course with our planet.
But again, the calamity we might face in the future is so unpredictable in nature that most of our defenses might just fail. What we need here is a backup plan. A backup plan that can help humanity to repopulate and flourish themselves after the final apocalypse.
Plant tissue cultures at USDA’s National Center for Genetic Resource Preservation | Image Courtesy: USDAgov
Making copies of terrestrial life isn’t just a proposition as one might think, but actual work has been done in that area. It all started in the late 1970s when scientists around the world began to store endangered plant seeds. Today, there are dozens of these seed banks operational around the world.
Perhaps the most famous one is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, situated on a distant Norwegian island about 1,300 kilometers from the North Pole. Its goal is to serve as a backup to the standard genebanks that might suffer an accidental loss of samples due to a large scale or global crisis. According to the Economist, the Svalbard Vault served as a backup for 1,750 seed banks around the world in 2012. The facility has a capacity to store as much as 4.5 million seed samples.
The location of Svalbard Global Seed Vault is ideal for long-term and dry storage. Recent reports of water intrusions have raised speculations over this fail-safe vault’s ability to withstand global disaster and ensure humanity’s food supply for the foreseeable future.
Svalbard Global Seed Vault entrance at night | Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
Other examples of genebank facilities include the Millennium Seed Bank in West Sussex near London and the Australian Grains Genebank (AGG) located at Grains Innovation Park in Victoria, Australia.
Like seeds, biological material from animals is also stored in various locations, though they are less common. Here, they store animal embryos, eggs, sperm, and DNAs of endangered animals. With the help of modern techniques, sperm, eggs, and embryos can be kept frozen for nearly 20 years without losing its potency.
We are making significant progress in finding new ways to extract genome data from animals and plants, but the real question is, where should we store the backups? Backing up tons of life-saving data on Earth seems a high-risk strategy, and the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is a good example of it.
Seed storage containers inside the Svalbard Global Seed Vault | Image Courtesy: Dag Terje Filip Endresen
So, given that the primary purpose of making a backup of life is to preserve humanity, it is evident that our Earth is not the best place to keep the backups as it’s waiting for a catastrophe.
Then perhaps the most obvious place to keep the backups is in space. For a start, scientists are already taking seeds into space for a short period (six months) to test their ability back on Earth.
Space is a harsh environment for biological material, where they can get exposed to intense radiation that will damage their DNA. However, low Earth orbit can be a suitable place for seeds as Earth’s magnetic field will protect them from space radiation to some degree.
Other possible locations in space for storage of biological data are the Moon and the moons of Saturn and Jupiter, or maybe a futuristic spacecraft itself. Such projects have been proposed, and groups around the world have begun planning such ventures.
No matter how but life on Earth is going to die sooner or later. The question is, will we be able to preserve humanity? That is one question we are all trying to answer.