We Need a Biological Archive for Climate Change

How to protect global biodiversity through biobanking and CryoArks

“A“A Race We Can Win” is the tagline of the upcoming 2019 UN Climate Action Summit. Much of the conversation surrounding the summit focuses on halting the effects of climate change on humans. If we reduce our emissions, if we have just two children, if we mobilize the youth, we can “win the race.” Nestled between common sense plans like mitigation and adaptation, the summit is also looking at what are called Nature-Based Solutions (NBS). The NBS work plan focuses on agriculture and food supply systems, regenerating land and water ecosystems, and the “enabling of all people to connect to nature.” Its key measure is to strengthen the connection between people and communities and the natural world, “aspiring for a harmonious coexistence between the two.”

However, in all of the little over three pages of actionable steps from the Nature-Based Solutions plan, we don’t see the extent of the biodiversity crisis at the frontlines of climate change. Which is a problem — if the biodiverse Earth we know and heavily rely on to survive was the Titanic, and climate change was the iceberg, then we should be looking at the lifeboats right about now.

Theoretically, conservation and climate action go hand in hand. On paper, when it comes to actionable policies, it’s a different matter. The World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) most recent “Living Planet Report” points out that despite numerous international scientific studies and policy agreements confirming that biological diversity is a global priority, worldwide trends in biodiversity continue to decline.

The report shows a drop in wildlife populations of 53% in the past 40 years. The proverbial iceberg has already hit (or in the case of arctic animals, the iceberg is melting beneath them).

So you hear that the Earth needs to protect biodiversity, but how does that biodiversity affect humans? Tiffany Yap, a scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, explains that preserving biodiversity gives people a safety net by nurturing ecosystems that clean our air and drinking water, protect our communities from sea-level rise, and pollinate our crops.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a nonprofit that works through science, law, and creative media, explicitly to secure the future for all species teetering on the brink of extinction.

Bees, the number one pollinator of crops, are particularly susceptible to climate change. Habitat loss and increasing temperatures due to climate change are hindering the bee’s ability to migrate to cooler areas and establish new colonies. Recent studies on bumblebee migrations found that bee territories are dramatically shrinking in North America and Europe.

Yap explains that the loss of one bee species may not be the end of the world if other species can fill in the lost species’ place and take over its pollinating responsibilities. “But if we wipe out too many pollinator species, we may forever lose that specific pollinating service. The same scenario can be applied to many ecosystems.”

With each species that we lose to climate change, we irreplaceably lose immense amounts of information about their biology, ecology, and evolutionary history.

Clearly whatever we were doing before in terms of conserving the Earth’s biodiversity isn’t working. We need something other than business as usual. “Practical benefits aside, do we really want to live on a lonely planet where our pollution has driven so many other living beings to extinction?” asked Yap.

If all carbon emissions on Earth ceased to exist right now as you were reading this, scientists at NASA point out that global warming would continue for at least several more decades, if not centuries. Politicians over the years have talked about human resilience, and to a large extent, that is true when it comes to biodiversity extinction. Out of all the living things on the planet, we’re likely to be able to survive the aftermath of climate change. Polar bears and orangutans? Probably not without extensive planning for the future.

With each species overtaken by climate change, we irreplaceably lose immense amounts of information about their biology, ecology, and evolutionary history. While we are busy cleaning up our mess extinction doesn’t stop. With only a handful of some species left, like the last two remaining white rhinos at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, time waiting for us to implement Nature-Based Solutions is a luxury they don’t have.

This is where CryoArks provide our lifeboats.

Biobanking is the process by which scientists collect and cryogenically store samples of genetic matter used to improve our scientific understanding of health and disease. However, scientists and conservationists are increasingly using biobanks as a way of saving species that are threatened or endangered by climate change, allowing them to store genetic material in vast CryoArks. CryoArks are large freezers that store the genetic material in liquid nitrogen at temperatures of -180°C, safely preserved for scientific use.

The Frozen Ark Project, a biobanking charity headquartered at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom collects genetic material from endangered species across the globe, a mission that current climate action plans severely need.

“We collect tissue, DNA, and cells of endangered animals to be used responsibly and sustainably in conservation management and research, while also providing an ‘insurance policy’ for future generations,” said Mafalda Costa, a research associate at The Frozen Ark Project.

Genetic material curated by Frozen Ark and similar organizations globally can be used to determine which species are more susceptible to climate change, and to inform conservation work. This information can then be used to inform policymakers, and conservation groups working on the ground on how best to manage populations and address challenges resulting from climate change.

Collecting and cryogenically storing genetic materials for use in conservation is already giving hope to endangered species. Last month, scientists successfully fertilized seven eggs from the last two northern white rhinos, with the cryogenically frozen sperm from two deceased northern white rhino bulls. They hope to create viable embryos that can be frozen and then later transferred to southern white rhino surrogate mothers.

The implications for CryoArking genetic material for endangered species are immense. While actionable policies to reduce carbon emissions and repair ecosystems are essential, so is the ability to create a genetic backup of endangered species with cloud-sharing access.

However, international legislation, like the Nagoya Protocol, which requires international contracting parties to take measures concerning access to genetic resources, benefit-sharing, compliance, and the movement of genetic material across borders, has made biobanking increasingly difficult.

Global biodiversity is at the forefront of the decimating threat from climate change, and it is a race we are currently losing. The 2019 International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species documents over 28,000 species across the biological spectrum of wildlife and plants that are threatened or on the path to extinction — 40% of amphibians, 25% of mammals, 14% of birds, 30% of sharks and rays, and 33% of reef corals are all at risk. With such a massive loss from so many different ecosystems, it’s a herculean task for any single organization.“We urgently need a coordinated global effort to collect and manage genetic material of endangered animals,” said Costa.

The UN’s Climate Action Program is essential to preserving our future, but it doesn’t go far enough in recognizing our dependence on biodiversity. We need collective international cooperation on processes like biobanking if we want to disrupt the trend of biodiversity loss. Our modern society and economies, from developed to developing nations, is fundamentally supported by nature and this needs to be the starting point in conversations about climate change action.

Climate change action needs to be a two-pronged approach, for the present and for the future. We need to take proactive steps like biobanking to safeguard biodiversity, even after we reduce our carbon emissions. As Marco Lambertini, director general WWF International pointed out, “There cannot be a healthy, happy, and prosperous future for people on a planet with a destabilized climate, depleted oceans and rivers, degraded land and empty forests, all stripped of biodiversity.”

British. Writer and Conservationist. Child of the Commonwealth.

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