Global seed vault compromised by soaring arctic temperatures
Buried deep inside the Arctic Circle, the Global Seed Vault is a giant project that protects the world’s most valuable seeds from global disasters and ensures the world’s food supply. Opened in 2008, it has been described as ‘the ultimate back up plan’. Permafrost and thick rock ensure that the seeds remain frozen in the vault even without power. However, in May 2017 meltwater gushed into the entrance of the vault, it was produced as a result of rising temperatures in the Arctic caused by climate change. Though the meltwater did not reach the seeds, there is now growing concern that the Global Seed Vault is no longer an impenetrable policy for the humanity’s food supply. This resource takes a look at what happens at the vault, the geopolitics of seed saving, and how climate change may be changing the landscape of Svalbard.
Where is the Global Seed vault?
Why was the Global Seed Vault established?
What happens there?
Why is international co-operation important to the success of the seedbank?
How is the arctic changing?
Global Seed Vault at night © Wikipedia Commons
The Global Seed Bank is based on the Norwegian Island of Spitsbergen, part of the Svalbard archipelago which is located in the Arctic Ocean, halfway between Norway and the North Pole. Buried over 100 meters deep into a mountain, it is one of the world’s largest untouched areas and it is the farthest north that a person can reach on a scheduled flight. This makes it an ideal location for the vault because it is both remote yet accessible. The area itself is geologically stable and humidity levels are low. It is also well above sea-level therefore protected from ocean flooding according to worst case scenario sea level rises.
CIAT beans shipped to Svalbard Global Seed Vault from Colombia © Global crop diversity trust, Flickr
There are many national, regional and international seed collections and gene banks around the world at various institutions and universities. For example, the Millennium seed bank which is based in Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in London and aims to preserve the botanical heritage of the UK. But these seedbanks are vulnerable to potential damage from external forces such as extreme weather, or conflict, but also from everyday accidents such as fires.
The Global Seed Vault was opened by the Norwegian Government in February 2008 and is managed in partnership with the Crop Trust. As the environmental, social and political landscape of the world changes it is important to keep as many different crop varieties as possible for future scenarios where food supply may be in jeopardy. Alongside the national seedbanks that exist, scientists and researchers working at these gene banks will also send copies to Svalbard to ensure there is a back-up.
Currently, there are around 930,000 samples of seeds held in the vault. It has the capacity to store 4.5 million varieties - with each sample of that variety containing around 500 seeds - meaning that in total 2.5 billion seeds can be housed in the Global Seed Bank.
A temperature of -18ºC is required for optimal storage of the seeds and they are stored in special foil packages which are sealed in boxes and stored on shelves. The vault has low metabolic activity as a result of low temperature and moisture levels and this ensures the seeds are safe for a long period of time.
The Vault is 100 meters deep into a mountain © Global crop diversity trust, Flickr
The Seed Vault and surroundings © Global crop diversity trust, Flickr
The 100 meters long entrance tunnel © Global crop diversity trust, Flickr
Seed storage at the vault © Global crop diversity trust, Flickr
© Global crop diversity trust, Flickr
Any organisation or country can send seeds to the vault; there or no restrictions. This means that the vault is an example of international co-operation towards global issues. Without the unique environment of the Global Seed Vault national seedbanks are potentially more precarious. They can be compromised by natural disasters and geopolitical unrest. For example, in 2006 Typhoon Milenyo hit the Philippines and caused irrevocable damage to the Philippine national genebank (Grain, 2007). In October 2015, the first withdrawal from the seedbank was made so that researchers, at the International Centre for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA) in civil war-torn Aleppo in Syria could continue their studies in safe new centres in Lebanon and Morocco (CNN, 2015). ICARDA is particularly valuable as it contains seeds of crops that grow in world’s driest regions (Nature, 2015).
Ambassadors from India accompany one of the country’s deposits to the Seed vault © Global crop diversity trust, Flickr
Peruvian ceremony to celebrate potatoes being sent to the vault © Global crop diversity trust, Flickr
2016 was the hottest year on record as a result of climate change. This led to extreme weather globally. Svalbard and the Arctic warm up more quickly than other areas of the world and at the end of 2016 the average temperature at the site of the vault (Spitsbergen) was 7°C above normal which pushed the permafrost above melting point (The Guardian, 2017). This led to melting and heavy rain, rather than the anticipated light snow that usually falls. As a result, meltwater gushed into the 100m long entrance, which later froze to ice requiring hacking out.
The vault was designed to exist without human intervention in a worst case scenario, but it is currently being monitored 24 hours a day. Vault managers are now working to waterproof the tunnel and dig trenches into the mountain the channel meltwater and rain away. The Global Seed Vault is designed with the view that the permafrost it is encased by, is per definition, permanent. However in an increasing changing climate is this incredibly important doomsday vault safe?
The Global Seed Vault © Global crop diversity trust, Flickr
A war between two organised groups that are part of the same state, or country
This is a type of repository that preserves genetic material. For example, by stocking seeds, or freezing cuttings from plants. It can also include the freezing of sperm of egg in zoological freezer
Permafrost is a permanently frozen layer below the Earth’s surface. It consists of soil, gravel, and sand, usually bound together by ice. Permafrost usually remains at or below 0C (32F) for at least two years.
A type of tropical storm that are formed over the Northwest Pacific Ocean
Pupils can take a look at videos and images of the Global Seed Vault. What do they already know about Svalbard? Ask pupils to draw a diagram of the vault explaining its design and structure. How is this ‘impenetrable deep freezer’ provided by the environment?
Ask pupils to research either Typhoon Milenyo (2006) or the civil war in Aleppo, Syria (2015). Discuss: how important is international co-operation in dealing with natural and man-made disasters? How can we think about local, national and global scales as being interconnected by something as small as a seed? Map these connections on a world map if possible.
Consider which plants and crops pupils believe should be added to the Global Seed Bank to secure the global food supply. What are these seeds?
2016 was the hottest year on record and affected the security of the Global Seed Bank. Ask pupils to design a poster to raise awareness of vault and to encourage understanding of climate change in the Svalbard region.
You can explore the Seed Bank via this interactive resource (Crop Trust, 2017)
'See inside the ‘doomsday vault’, CNN, 2015
Inside the Doomsday vault, TIME, 2017
Forever securing the world food supply with crop trust, Go Pro, 2011
Global Seed Vault
Arctic stronghold of world’s seeds flooded after permafrost melts, The Guardian, 2017
Artic seed vault is key to future of global crops, BBC, 2017 (VIDEO)
The gloomy Arctic seed bank that's key to future crops, BBC, 2017
Svalbard seed vault to take Peruvian potato samples, BBC, 2011
What is the Millennium seed bank? BBC, 2009
Inside the Millennium Seed Bank (in pictures), The Guardian, 2017
Millennium seed bank at Kew Gardens
Saving the planet’s biodiversity, Kew Gardens
Heritage seed library
The Crop Trust
Seed Portal at the Global Seed Bank
Discovering the Arctic
Article: Is Teff the latest superfood?
Key stage three: Natural resources
Key stage three: Fantastic Places, Svalbard
Key stage three: The Geography of Conflict
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