The Arc­tic Dooms­day Vault Feels the Heat

Trillions - - Contents -

In Sval­bard, Nor­way, the vault stor­ing seeds of the most im­por­tant crops in the world is in trou­ble. And that is not the most se­ri­ous is­sue fac­ing the world’s food se­cu­rity.

There is a ma­jor irony as to why the vault it­self is in trou­ble. Its pur­pose was to bring to­gether seed sam­ples that could be pro­tected re­gard­less of what con­di­tions hu­man be­ings might cre­ate. Ma­jor wars, fires and even the threat of nu­clear weapons were con­sid­ered in plan­ning the vault. How­ever, none of those big­ger threats are what is cre­at­ing the cur­rent risk. In­stead, cli­mate change is the cul­prit, cre­at­ing un­ex­pected prob­lems.

First, the Sval­bard Global Seed Vault is strate­gi­cally lo­cated a 90-minute flight away from north­ern Nor­way – about as far north as one can travel com­mer­cially. The re­gion is nor­mally quite cold and dan­ger­ous to ven­ture to with­out a car. The lat­ter is both be­cause of the cold tem­per­a­tures and be­cause there are po­lar bears there that could take down a hu­man be­ing in sec­onds.

The vault, run by Nord­gen (the Nordic gene bank), is lo­cated 100 me­ters in­side the moun­tains. There are six steel doors meant to iso­late the in­te­rior cli­mate from the out­side. That is good pro­tec­tion, of course. An­other pro­tec­tion is that the vault build­ing is lo­cated in a peren­ni­ally-icy-cold area with lay­ers of per­mafrost sur­round­ing it. With global warm­ing now kick­ing in with sur­pris­ing fe­roc­ity in the Arc­tic, that de­sign con­cept has proven faulty. Last year, the per­mafrost be­gan a his­toric melt­ing that is cre­at­ing other haz­ards, such as the rapid re­lease of meth­ane into the at­mos­phere. It has also raised tem­per­a­tures enough that the melt­ing oc­cur­ring out­side the vault (some­thing never ex­pected by the plan­ners) has re­sulted in leaks in­side it.

The coun­try of Nor­way, which al­ready pays a ma­jor part of the bills for man­ag­ing the vault, is now spend­ing $20 mil­lion to shore up its con­struc­tion and iso­late it from fur­ther dam­age of this kind. Nor­way is also work­ing to in­crease the re­silience of the fa­cil­ity’s in­ter­nal sys­tems, which are de­signed to keep the seeds at –18°C (–4°F). As the Arc­tic heats up fur­ther – like it did this win­ter – more will likely have to be done to protect the vault’s in­te­rior from the un­ex­pected warmth of the out­side and to iso­late the pre­cious seeds from dam­age from that front.

An ad­di­tional cur­rent con­cern about the seed vault is that global warm­ing has cre­ated havoc with plants around the world. As a re­sult, with­drawals of seeds from the vault have al­ready been made (to re­place lost field crops). More with­drawals will put the very

con­cept of the seed bank at risk, es­pe­cially if the rate of re­moval in­creases.

An­other prob­lem cre­ated by cli­mate change is that it may turn out that many of the seeds that have been so se­curely pro­tected may not be suf­fi­ciently re­silient to sur­vive as the world con­tin­ues to heat up. When the seed bank was ini­tially planned, a nar­row group of what were con­sid­ered crit­i­cal crops were sought out in seed form. That se­lec­tion is grow­ing, but the to­tal sup­ply is still lim­ited. As Marie Haga, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of Crop Trust (a group de­voted to sup­port­ing gene banks around the world), said, “bio­di­ver­sity is the build­ing block to de­velop new plants, and be­cause of cli­mate change, we’re in a ter­ri­ble need to quickly de­velop new va­ri­eties. The cli­mate is chang­ing quicker than the plants can han­dle.”

It could be, then, that when the vault’s con­tents are needed most to help the world re­grow lost crops on a large scale, there will not be enough bio­di­ver­sity there to get us through the man-made crises go­ing on out­side the vault. To deal with that, Crop Trust is work­ing to raise $850 mil­lion to fi­nance pro­grams to en­cour­age bio­di­ver­sity re­search in lo­cal fa­cil­i­ties. That is a big in­crease from the cur­rent $285 mil­lion of fund­ing that Crop Trust cur­rently has avail­able, but it is hoped that more money will be se­cured thanks to an in­creased em­pha­sis on re­quests for help from pri­vate busi­ness.

The truth is that even with the best of vaults and the most in­volved plan­ning for their con­tents, that is still not enough to protect the world’s food sup­ply. As Pa­trick Mul­vany, an agri­cul­tural ex­pert and con­sul­tant in bio­di­ver­sity and food sup­ply, em­pha­sized re­cently, more in­vest­ment is needed to sup­port farm­ers who are not re­ceiv­ing enough money to de­velop al­ter­na­tive va­ri­eties to sup­port the fu­ture. With­out that, Mul­vany pointed out re­cently, “our fu­ture food is very in­se­cure. You can have as many seeds as you want locked up in the vault here, but they de­te­ri­o­rate a lit­tle bit over time, and they aren’t adapt­ing to cli­mate and new so­cial pres­sures.”

An­other threat to the world’s food sup­ply is the in­creas­ing use of ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied crops such as those pro­duced by Mon­santo, Syn­genta, Bayer and Dow Chem­i­cal. Even with­out the risks of such crops to our health – be­cause they are syn­thet­i­cally gen­er­ated and have built-in li­a­bil­i­ties of their own and even fur­ther be­cause of the haz­ards of part­ner her­bi­cides such as Mon­santo’s proven-toxic glyphosate-rich Roundup – there is yet an­other ma­jor is­sue as GMOS con­tinue to dom­i­nate the world’s seed use glob­ally. That is­sue, which has al­ready been demon­strated in events such as the dec­i­ma­tion of Mon­santo-de­vel­oped GMO crops in India as pests evolved to tar­get the nar­row sets of crops planted through­out, is that the lack of bio­di­ver­sity that the GMO in­dus­try de­pends on for its ef­fi­cien­cies and economies of scale makes the world even more vul­ner­a­ble – not safer – over time.

The Sval­bard seed vault – even un­der re­pair and with the need to sup­port its mis­sion more im­por­tant than ever – just cel­e­brated its 10th an­niver­sary. In honor of that, gene banks from ev­ery­where have made spe­cial de­posits of new seeds. Those seed sam­ples in­clude sta­ples such as rice, maize, lentils and egg­plant in quan­ti­ties that have pushed the vault’s stores to over one mil­lion seeds’ strong.

The vault is now look­ing to take that num­ber even fur­ther, to two mil­lion.

Photo: Frode Ra­mone

Seed stor­age deep in­side the vault. Photo by Dag Terje Filip En­dresen

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