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Geo-Joint: The Svalbard Global Seed Vault

Posted on June 07 2016

Conditions for life on our planet are not, in general, improving. At least not for the diversity of life. Kudzu, crows, and cockroaches are doing just fine, but we lose species every day, and these are plants and animals that took hundreds of thousands if not millions of years to develop. Gone. When an animal species is lost, there’s not much we can do about it. But at least with plants, if all the individuals growing in the ground should perish, we can at least have a chance to raise another–by saving seeds. It might not be possible to warehouse seeds for every plant on earth, but as an act of self-preservation humans have made an effort to preserve the seeds of crops that we rely on to feed ourselves. 1,700 seed banks exist all over the world, but like money banks, they have varying degrees of security. It’s not theft that threatens these collections, but weather, war, infestations, natural disasters, and sea-level rise.

In order to house a collection of the world’s crop seeds in the optimum location, the Global Crop Diversity Trust chose Spitsbergen Island in the archipelago of Svalbard. Svalbard lies north of Norway, and 800 miles north of the Arctic Circle. The location, near the town of Longyearbyen, serves a number of purposes. First, it’s really cold up there so the refrigeration required for long-term storage is almost free. Only a slight amount of cooling is necessary to reach the optimum storage temperature (-0.4 degrees F), and the ambient coldness of the permafrost also protects against insect infestation and the effects of a power failure. In addition, humidity levels are naturally low, inhibiting rot. It’s safe from conflict in that the land is run by a stable government, the location isn’t likely to be a place sought for conquest. Further, because the seed vault is dug into a mountainside almost 480 feet deep, it is immune to even nuclear attack. Yet despite its remote location, there are power supplies at hand, a daily airplane flight from the outside world, and good roads leading to the vault. The area is relatively geologically inactive, so earthquakes are of low concern. Lastly, it sits at a 427-foot elevation, so no amount of climate change will raise the ocean high enough to inundate it. Stored under the safety of all these conditions, the seeds may remain viable for hundreds, and possibly thousands of years.

The complex, completed in 2008, consists of a shaft leading to three vaults, each about 30 by 90 feet, and 20 feet in height. The building of the vault cost the Norwegian government US $9 million, which seems like a bargain for what is offered there. Three or four times a year the doors are opened for deposits to the bank from all over the world. Ownership of the seeds is retained by the depositor. The bank can hold 4.5 million seed samples sealed in foil packets, each with around 500 individual seeds. At present, there are over 860,000 crop varieties represented. Seeds from both commonly-grown crop varieties, as well as wild relatives of those plants are in the collection. The wild varieties could contain valuable genetic qualities that would be needed in the event of the failure of the domesticated strains.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is meant as a backup for all the other seed banks in the world. It is especially important to developing countries whose climate may make storage difficult, and whose political situation may be tenuous. In the event of loss at local seed banks, the Svalbard facility can be called upon for regeneration of plants from which a new seed stock can replenish both the local and Svalbard banks. In 2015, the first withdrawal of seeds took place as Syria made a request for the return of its seed stock. Though its own seed bank in Aleppo has remained operative throughout the conflicts there, Syria now wants to grow its Svalbard-stored seeds to generate more seed for the country’s farmers. In time, Syria will replenish the collection it has retrieved from Svalbard. Officials are pleased at the arrangement which is the first opportunity for the Svalbard facility to function in its complete role as both the vital seed repository and resupplier for the world.

And thanks to Farmer Brandi for forwarding the Svalbard Global Seed Vault web link that started this Geo-Joint!

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