Pro­tect­ing the World’s Seeds While Global Tem­per­a­tures Soar

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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.

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