Underground vault takes on role of back-up hard drive for world's crops
On the icy Norwegian island of Svalbard an underground vault has been blasted out of the permafrost to store seed samples from around the world, this international collaboration between
scientists and governments is home to precious genetic resources that may help us adapt food supply to climate change.
With three-quarters of crop biodiversity having been lost over the last century, drastic action is needed to ensure that our remaining food crops do not follow suit. This action got underway at
the end of February when the Global Seed Vault opened its doors.
Within hours of the grand opening some 268,000 seed samples containing more than 100 million individual seeds from 220 countries were catalogued, coded and in place. These had been sent by 20
different research institutes and national seed collections. Eventually the vault could hold more than two billion seeds.
The vault was built by Norway. Operation costs are met by government and private donations including around ?13 million from the UK, ?8 million from Australia; ?7 million from Germany and ?4
million from the USA.
While the temperature inside the vault is around zero, the optimum storage temperature for the seeds is -19°C. Huge coolers have therefore been running in the vault since November.
Over 150 metres beneath the permafrost, the entrance tunnel to the seed vault is designed to withstand explosions and earthquakes. An automated system provides tight security, and no single
person has all the codes for the entrance.
Such precautions follow damage and destruction to previous national seed banks. Those in Afghanistan and Iraq were destroyed by looters interested in the plastic containers holding the seeds.
In the Philippines a typhoon broke through a seed bank wall, destroying numerous samples.
The bank will not only preserve samples that could be lost due to rising global temperatures, but will facilitate the study of crop genetics. Having so many samples catalogued and in one place
will help scientists wishing to identify genetic material and plant strains better able to cope with a changed environment, for example corn with stalks that can resist high winds.
The cool temperatures in Svalbard will also ensure the samples’ protection should power fail. ‘We are inside a mountain in the Arctic because we wanted a really, really safe place that operates
by itself,’ says Cary Fowler, president of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, the non-profit group that runs the vault.
Seed labs are only just starting to become a priority. While in the past they may have been considered the domain of hobbyists and farmers, there is now a growing realisation that climate
change could lead to a time when they are essential to human survival.