It seems Svalbard’s “Doomsday Vault” isn’t fit after all to be the “new Noah’s Ark” that will be the “ultimate safeguard” for the world’s food supply in the event of Armageddon – a mere and unlucky 13 years after opening. Things are so dire we need a new “global insurance policy” on the moon, built underground in a series of lava tubes and staffed by robots.
That’s the thinking of students and instructors at the University of Arizona who are proposing a “solar-powered lunar ark” to “store cryogenically frozen seed, spore, sperm and egg samples from 6.7 million Earth species.” Presenting the project at the IEEE Aerospace Conference last weekend, they argued Earth’s natural history – which has involved several mass extinction events – combined with the existential threats posed by climate change means
“As humans, we had a close call about 75,000 years ago with the Toba supervolcanic eruption, which caused a 1,000-year cooling period and, according to some, aligns with an estimated drop in human diversity,” said Jekan Thanga, a professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering, who presented the project (watch video of presentation). “Because human civilization has such a large footprint, if it were to collapse, that could have a negative cascading effect on the rest of the planet.”
Luckily, he said, it’s not like the Svalbard Vault, currently storing about 1 million frozen seed samples in a facility 130 meters inside a mountain, is a complete washout.
“This concert has already been started with the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, also known as the ‘Doomsday Vault,’ where all the major seeds for the world’s food supply have been stored,” Thanga said. “That happens to be an inspiration for our modern ark.”
The project would be more cost effective than trying to protect all endangered species,” he said. Also, transporting about 50 samples from each of 6.7 million species would require about 250 rocket launches, compared to the 40 rocket launches to build the International Space Station.
“It’s not crazy big,” Thanga said. “We were a little bit surprised about that.”
Scientists discovered a network of about 200 lava tubes just beneath the moon’s surface in 2013, according to an overview of the project. These structures formed billions of years ago, when streams of lava melted their way through soft rock underground, forming underground caverns.
“This network of lunar lava tubes are about 100 meters in diameter,” the description notes. “Untouched for an estimated 3 billion to 4 billion years, they could provide shelter from solar radiation, micrometeorites and surface temperature changes.”
Instead of trying to develop a base for humans, “miniature flying and hopping robots called SphereX enter a lava tube in teams. There, they would collect samples of regolith, or dust and loose rock, and gather information about the layout, temperature and makeup of the lava tubes. This information could inform the construction of the lunar base.”
Solar panels on the moon’s surface would provide electricity. Two or more elevator shafts would access a series of cryogenic preservation modules where samples were stored, while an additional elevator would transport construction material to allow expansion of the facility.
There are still a few technical problems to be solved, since “to be cryopreserved, the seeds must be cooled to minus 180C (minus 292F) and the stem cells kept at minus 196C (minus 320F),” according to the project description. Alas, that “means there’s a risk the metal parts of the base could freeze, jam or even cold-weld together. On Earth, commercial airlines stop working when ground temperatures reach minus 45 to minus 50C (minus 49 to minus 58F).”
A possible solution might be “quantum levitation,” where “a cryo-cooled superconductor material – or a material that transfers energy without losing any heat, like a traditional cable does – floats above a powerful magnet.
“It’s like they’re locked in place by strings, but invisible strings,” Thanga said. “When you get to cryogenic temperatures, strange things happen. Some of it just looks like magic but is based on tried and laboratory-tested physics principles at the edge of our understanding.”
Among those giving the proposal serious treatment is Jamie Carter, a science writer for Forbes magazine, who in an article headlined “Why We Need A ‘Moon Ark’ To Store Frozen Seeds, Sperm And Eggs From 6.7 Million Earth Species” detailed some of the Svalbard vault’s supposed deficiencies.
“Its ‘permafrost mountain’ home can no longer be relied upon to stay frozen, flooding the entrance in 2017,” Carter wrote, invoking the sensationalized description of what was actually leakage that existed at the vault for years – although regardless it still took more than twice the vault’s original cost for repairs/upgrades.
The journalist also notes the Svalbard vault is “built at only 430 ft./130 meters above sea level.” Given that the most alarmist predictions by credible scientists is sea level rising by up to three meters by 2100, if the vault (and thus all of Longyearbyen) is submerged before the end of its functional life it seems safe to speculate humanity will be facing existential dangers far too severe for a society to exist that can get a spaceship to the moon and back – to say nothing of how those crops and livestock might be grown.