Protecting the World’s Seeds While Global Temperatures Soar
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault was designed to protect against almost anything either Mother Nature or human beings could throw at it. In May 2017, however, its makers found out the hard way that there was one big thing they had underestimated: climate change.
For those who have never heard of it, the idea behind the seed vault may sound like something out of a Cold War-era thriller movie. Originally called the Nordic Gene Bank, it was first started in 1984 as a place where some 10,000 seed samples from different cultivars and species of important food crops were to be kept safe and secure forever. The seeds were stored in an abandoned coal mine at Svalbard, located about 810 miles (1,300 kilometers) from the North Pole on the normally brutally cold Norwegian island of Spitsbergen.
The purpose of the facility was deceptively simple: to protect the most important food crop species from either natural extinction or human destruction. The first part of its mission – picking the seeds to store – was a curated effort, with individuals such as conservationist Cary Fowler and others helping screen submitted seed offerings for their value as food and with respect to specific characteristics, like heat and drought tolerance. For the second part of its mission – protecting the seeds – the facility was built as a bunker in one of the coldest and most isolated regions in the world. It was constructed there for protection against heat and exposure to airborne diseases, pests and man-made threats such as war. It was also designed to be protected and to operate without any human intervention.
The seed vault is embedded 390 feet (120 meters) inside a sandstone mountain on Spitsbergen. The island had no record of tectonic activity and was surrounded by permafrost. The vault is also built some 430 feet (130 meters) above sea level, at a height that should keep it dry even if the polar ice caps were to melt. Even with the cold, however, it requires some cooling to maintain proper storage temperatures at the recommended –0.4˚F (–18˚C). That cooling is provided by systems powered by coal available on the island itself. Further, even if the refrigeration were to fail completely, the embedded structure of the facility will keep the place cool enough on its own, with it taking an estimated several weeks before the vault would rise to the surrounding sandstone bedrock temperature of 27˚F (–3˚C).
The individual seed packets are also stored in special multi-layer bags to further protect them.
As scientists around the world realized the importance and genius of the idea, the seed submissions grew and the need for something bigger and stronger than the original storage place grew with them. With construction funding provided 100% by the Norwegian government, the current larger Svalbard Global Seed Vault took its place in 2008. It currently houses around one million different seed packets of important foods from around the globe.
Those interested in having seeds stored in the vault can do so at no cost to them. Operational funding is paid for by the Norwegian government, the Nordic Genetic Resource Centre (Nordgen) and the Crop Trust. The Crop Trust itself is funded by many governments, private organizations and individuals.
All has been working well with the seed vault for years, with new seeds being scrutinized, indexed and stored while the existing ones are kept protected and replenished.
Then May 2017 happened. The previous winter and early spring’s human-caused climate change brought some of the hottest temperatures ever recorded in the Arctic to the region. In a typical May, the island would have been dusted in lightly blowing snow. This year, however, the high temperatures brought heavy rains and an equally unthinkable melting of the protective permafrost on the seed vault’s mountain.
Without warning, the combined flow of the rainwaters and the melted permafrost caused water to flood the entrance of the vault. Once inside, because of the refrigerated internals, the water began to refreeze. This, along with the strong door seals and multiple levels of architectural protection, thankfully kept the waters from penetrating the inner sanctum and causing any damage to the stored seed varieties.
Those responsible for the management of the seed vault responded quickly to what had happened. They first hacked out the inner ice and rebuilt temporary door seals where needed. They also began work on a plan to rebuild the entry areas so that this kind of flooding cannot pose this kind of threat again.
The message in all of this is quite clear to all concerned, however. In a world where something as important and with as thoughtful a set of protections from all sorts of natural and man-made threats can be breached so easily, it shows how even the best planning is not enough. Runaway climate change is very real and far worse than we have been led to believe. The global community should expect far more serious surprises than this one at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in the very near future.