This week in Doomsday nonsense: ‘The Uninhabitable Earth,’ ‘Arks of the Apocalypse,’ DNA evidence for the end of the world


To proclaim we’re all dead men walking is hardly alarmist: that’s been the case for everyone on Earth except for a few cases like Jesus or Lord Voldemort before his Horcruxes were vanquished. But calling a bit of water leakage into Svalbard Global Seed Vault a key sign of a mass extinction event now underway comparable to the one that wiped out the dinosaurs might be a doomsday cry too far.



This fossil sold by Heartless Machine is deemed a worthy illustration of how we should all rationally think about life on Earth during the coming decades.

The Apocalypse remains all the rage (literally, in many case) these days, making the seed vault a handy prop for everyone envisioning end-of-the-world scenarios ever since the “flooding” of the facility was infamously reported by The Guardian nearly two months ago. But the usual ruminations about ruination is causing many of the most chill people when it comes to excessive heat to lose their cool.

A near-term future of “famine, economic collapse, a sun that cooks us” is foreshadowed in an article headlined “The Uninhabitable Earth” by David Wallace-Wells published last week in New York magazine. Perhaps the most pessimistic portrayal of post-apocalyptic life among the recent fully of articles using the Doomsday Vault as a tie-in, it rapidly progresses from claiming the facility “appeared to have been flooded by climate change less than ten years after being built” to asserting there soon will be no place to escape.”


Just a reminder: This is the “flooded” entry tunnel of the Doomsday Vault. Photo courtesy of the Norwegian Ministry of Food, Fisheries and Agriculture.

“No matter how well-informed you are, you are surely not alarmed enough,” he wrote. “Over the past decades, our culture has gone apocalyptic with zombie movies and Mad Max dystopias, perhaps the collective result of displaced climate anxiety, and yet when it comes to contemplating real-world warming dangers, we suffer from an incredible failure of imagination.”

The article, based in part on a study declaring Earth is now going through a sixth mass extinction, prompted a proverbial flood of objections from climate scientists. In everything from TV interviews to scholarly papers they argued it’s hard enough to get skeptics (many of affect major policymaking these days) to accept and adjust to the ongoing impacts of climate change without being further discredited by peers pushing overly alarmist scenarios.

“In what seems an ode to new journalism, the author takes significant literary license to leverage information grounded in truth and paint an apocalyptic picture of extreme future scenarios possibly driven by anthropogenic climate change,” said Peter Neff, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Rochester who was among 16 climate experts signing a rebuttal article, in an interview with the science website Climate Feedback. “Ambiguous references to studies, events and examples severely impairs credibility, as does a complete disregard for nuance.”


The photographer offers a pretty picture of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault – and the writer definitely doesn’t – in a cover feature in last week’s issue of The New York Times Magazine.

But another and more widely read periodical from the Big Apple – The New York Times Magazine – is also using the seed vault to sow wider awareness about a wider range of projects preparing for the predicted mass extinction. An article titled “Arks of the Apocalypse opens with a drastic narrative about “torrents” of water rushing into the vault’s entrance tunnel, firefighter pumping the water out, and how “townspeople from the village at the mountain’s base then brought their own shovels and axes and broke apart the ice sheet by hand.” (Did somebody accidentally send the author a photo of the recent home-wrecking avalanches?)

According to the Times article, it was the realization “President Trump was likely to pull the United States out of the Paris climate agreement,” not The Guardian article reporting the flooding six months after it happened, that sparked the deluge of Doomsday Vault articles that pivoted to larger topics like record heat and The End Of The World As We Know It.

“Here was a minifable suggesting that our attempts to preserve even mere traces of the bounty around us might fall apart, too,” the Times article states.

Of course, like many vault-related articles with openings worthy of big-screen sci-fi effects, the magazine eventually seeks to spread serious science to the masses at a digestible level. It reassures readers that “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” before attempting to correct the vocabulary of those agonizing about the approaching Apocalypse.

“A growing consensus among scientists holds that we now live in the Anthropocene, an epoch defined by humanity’s impact on planetary ecosystems,” the article states. “We are responsible for the current die-off of species, not some asteroid or volcanic eruption.”

The article’s detailing of various other types of doomsday vaults – ranging from ice cores to “exotic-animal milk” – omits the local seed bank’s new next-door neighbor, which began storing data on film in Mine 3 earlier this year. But the concept gets yet another seed vault tie-in in an article at headlined “Researchers just spliced an animated GIF into live bacteria — for science.”

While the folks behind the local data vault consider film the ultimate long-term storage medium that don’t rely on a specific technology, the researchers who used a “gene editing technique known as Crispr to implant DNA encoded with an animated image of a galloping horse into live bacteria” are convinced their way is far more dense.

“Scientists have already tapped them to store the nearly 600,000 word novel ‘War and Peace,’ as well as all of the plant material archived at the Svalbard Seed Vault,” the article notes. “And just for shits and giggles, they recently embedded an entire OK Go music video in live strands of DNA.”