Arc­tic vault safe­guards seeds from ex­tinc­tion

The Star Early Edition - - NEWS - ASH­LEY COATES

SOME 2 100km into the Arc­tic Cir­cle and just 1 050km from the North Pole lies the world’s most im­por­tant freezer.

Si­t­u­ated on Spits­ber­gen Is­land in the Sval­bard ar­chi­pel­ago, the Global Seed Vault is owned by the Nor­we­gian gov­ern­ment and sits next to the world’s north­ern­most town, Longyear­byen, with a pop­u­la­tion of just over 2 000.

Con­tained within in it are 930 000 va­ri­eties of the world’s most pre­cious seeds, sent by the gene banks across the globe to in­sure them against risks in their home coun­try, such as nat­u­ral dis­as­ters, war and loot­ing.

Built to house as many as 5 mil­lion seed va­ri­eties, in the most ex­treme cir­cum­stances, the vault is in­tended to act as a “dooms­day” de­pos­i­tory for global agri­cul­ture if a ma­jor catas­tro­phe wipes out the plants we rely on.

But its main role is in pro­tect­ing di­ver­sity from threats that al­ready ex­ist to­day.

“To­day, cli­mate change is chal­leng­ing agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tion,” says Marie Haga, a for­mer leader of Nor­way’s Cen­tre Party and the ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Crop Trust, which ad­vises on and part-funds the vault.

“Plants have al­ways adapted. Wheat orig­i­nates in the Mid­dle East and now we grow it all over the world, but it has taken thou­sands of years for wheat to move from the Mid­dle East to some­where like Canada. The ba­sic prob­lem to­day is that cli­mate change is hap­pen­ing faster than plants are able to adapt.

“The pri­mary aim of the vault is to en­sure that mankind has ac­cess to a max­i­mum di­ver­sity of crops to be able to adapt to new chal­lenges in the fu­ture,” Haga says.

Ac­cord­ing to Kew’s State of the World’s Plants re­port, there are 90 000 plant species known to sci­ence, with around 30 000 used by peo­ple. Their re­port es­ti­mated that one in five plants are at risk from ex­tinc­tion, with habi­tat loss the lead­ing cause of ex­tinc­tion risk.

“We are los­ing ge­netic di­ver­sity rapidly, both in the field and in gene banks around the world,” says Haga. “For each va­ri­ety of seeds that we lose we also lose op­tions for the fu­ture.”

Three vaults lie at the end of a 130m tun­nel in­side the flank of Mount Plateau, al­low­ing the seeds to be stored deep within the Arc­tic per­mafrost. In the vault room the seeds are cooled to an op­ti­mal 18°C.

Three times a year this unique fa­cil­ity opens up its doors to al­low coun­tries to make de­posits in the frozen vaults. Flown in by air to the world’s north­ern­most air­port, any col­lab­o­rat­ing gene bank has to send over at least 500 ex­am­ples of a given crop va­ri­ety and re­main pro­pri­etors of their seeds, should they ever need them.

To the sur­prise of many, the bank has al­ready been used for its in­tended pur­pose. Af­ter the In­ter­na­tional Gene Bank of Syria de­ter­mined their Aleppo site was too hard to ad­min­is­ter in 2015, the site’s ad­min­is­tra­tors re­quested their boxes from the vault to re­plen­ish new re­search fa­cil­i­ties in Le­banon and Morocco.

It may seem like a rar­efied en­deav­our, but there are 1 700 gene banks dot­ted across the world, and many are con­sid­ered to be at risk as a re­sult of lack of fund­ing, poor in­fras­truc­ture, and not enough or qual­i­fied tech­ni­cal hu­man re­sources or in­for­ma­tion sys­tems.

In Afghanistan, two of the coun­try’s seed banks have been looted, not for the seeds, but for the plas­tic con­tain­ers used to store them. Hur­ri­cane Xangsane wiped out an­other bank in the Philip­pines.

“We have also lost seed col­lec­tions in Iraq due to the war,” says Haga. “In China to­day, they only use 10% of the rice va­ri­eties they would have used back in 1950. In the US they have lost more than 90% of their fruit and veg­etable va­ri­eties in the field. So it’s very im­por­tant that this ma­te­rial ex­ists in gene banks, and it’s vi­tally im­por­tant that we have back-up sys­tems.”

Lo­cat­ing the seed bank deep in­side a moun­tain in the Arc­tic Cir­cle is both an im­por­tant se­cu­rity fea­ture of Sval­bard, and fail­safe if the cool­ing sys­tem no longer works. If the power sup­ply is cut off or the re­frig­er­a­tion units fail, the in­side of the moun­tain would main­tain a steady tem­per­a­ture of 5°C to 8°C.

Al­though not all the seeds would be saved, a fea­si­bil­ity study sug­gested many of the de­posits would last for hun­dreds if not thou­sands of years, with­out hu­man in­ter­ven­tion.

Mount Plateau is also ge­o­log­i­cally sta­ble with lim­ited hu­mid­ity and with low ra­di­a­tion read­ings in­side the moun­tain it­self.

The Nor­we­gian gov­ern­ment, which owns the vault, says it has a “vir­tu­ally in­fi­nite life­time” and is “ro­bustly se­cured against ex­ter­nal haz­ards and cli­mate change ef­fects”. It cer­tainly seemed to be the per­fect site for this en­deav­our.

How­ever, the gov­ern­ment had not ex­pected what has proved to be the hottest year on record, re­sult­ing in ex­treme weather con­di­tions in the Arc­tic. De­spite hav­ing been po­si­tioned in an area where ice is sup­posed to re­main frozen all year round, in May this year the per­mafrost melted, breached the bank’s en­try doors and caused wa­ter to en­ter the fa­cil­ity’s 130m-long en­trance tun­nel. For­tu­nately, none of the seeds were af­fected by the melt­wa­ter as it re­froze be­fore it could reach the vault.

930 000 va­ri­eties of the world’s most pre­cious seeds stored

DEEP FREEZE: This 2008 photo shows the Sval­bard Global Seed Vault near Longyear­byen in Sval­bard, Nor­way.

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