Seed vault opening

Skaters on the Rideau Canal

A particularly tangible sort of insurance policy is being initiated today, with the opening of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. The underground facility is intended to protect the genetic diversity of plant species, in recognition of the risk that other seeds could be destroyed by a worldwide disaster. Eventually, the vault is meant to contain 4.5 million seed samples, deposited by governments from around the world.

The vault is buried 120m inside a sandstone mountain selected for remoteness, persistent cold, and lack of tectonic activity. The selection of a site 130m above sea level ensures that, even if all the world’s ice melts, it will not be submerged. The seeds will be kept at a temperature of -20 to -30 degrees Celsius using electrical power. In the event of a failure of refrigeration, several weeks would elapse before temperatures rose to the -3 degree temperature of the surrounding rock. The packaging of the seeds – along with their natural durability – should make at least some viable for long periods of time, even in the absence of refrigeration.

The $9.1 million project was financed by the Global Crop Diversity Trust. While there is no particular reason to believe that the world’s 1400 or so other seed banks would be universally unable to survive something like a nuclear war or a comet or asteroid impact, $9.1 million is probably a sensible expenditure when so many potentially vital species are to be protected. Less sensational disasters are also being insured against: from the destruction of national seedbanks through conflicts or errors to administrative blunders or localized natural disasters.

An interactive tour of the facility is accessible online.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

17 thoughts on “Seed vault opening”

  1. The selection of a site 130m above sea level ensures that, even if all the world’s ice melts, it will not be submerged. The seeds will be kept at a temperature of -20 to -30 degrees

    Get ready for the irony…

    “Locally mined coal provides power for refrigeration…”

  2. John McConnico/Associated Press
    Dot Earth

    Buried Seed Vault Opens in Arctic
    By ANDREW C. REVKIN 17 minutes ago
    Built into a mountainside in Norway, this is the first secure, deep-frozen repository for backup supplies of the seed varieties that underpin agriculture.

    “No one questions the vulnerability of many of the world’s seed stores. Iraq’s bank of ancient wheat, barley and other crop strains in the town of Abu Ghraib — made infamous for other reasons — was looted during the war (mainly for the containers holding grain samples, not for the grain itself). An international rice repository in the Philippines was shredded by a typhoon.

    The new repository is intended to be an insurance policy for individual countries and also for humanity more generally, should larger-scale disaster strike (anything from pestilence to an asteroid impact). “

  3. “Locally mined coal provides power for refrigeration…”

    Renewable power would certainly be a better option, given that it would be greener and less liable to interruption. I presume they already evaluated the renewable possibilities at this site and found none to be viable.

    A few coal emissions are worthwhile, when it comes to protecting so much genetic diversity. Think how many warehouses of discount hamburgers are being run using electricity from coal plants right now.

  4. It seems like an important project. A recent edition of New Scientist was discussing the loss of a huge seed stock initially owned by the Russians in the 1940s, abandoned to invading German troops (who took quite a lot of them home) and then “lost” (ie. there is no formal record of their whereabouts) after the end of the war. One can certainly imagine scenarios under which many unusual seeds would be lost that weren’t held in storage elsewhere, especially in the event of a war or major disaster. However, it does make me wonder what plans are in place to police and defend the facility, particularly in the event that other sources of seeds are destroyed – it would then become a hugely valuable resource which would attract looters etc. In short: who guards the guards?

  5. Sarah,

    As far as I know, the facility will only be briefly staffed at times when seeds are being deposited or withdrawn. Otherwise, it will be monitored remotely. There are no guards to speak of.

    In the event that large numbers of other seedbanks were destroyed, those running this one might rethink that approach.

  6. The world’s insurance policy

    So the first batch of the world’s crop seeds is now packed away deep in the cold Svalbard mountainside, and the vault’s doors, for the time being, are once again sealed. In total, more than 100 million seeds, representing some 250,000 individual strains of almost 100 major crops, from sorghum to sunflowers, have been loaded up in vault number 2 (I’m not sure why they started with vault no. 2 – although it may have been something to do with the fact that during the opening, vault no. 1 was playing host to 150 delegates and about a dozen live musical performers). Over 11 tonnes of seeds, in an impressive 656 boxes, were loaded up and locked away in little more than an hour.

    So what now for the Global Seed Vault? Eventually, the collection will grow until it includes almost every crop strain in existence – as many as 1.5 million different seed types. Assembling this collection will mean taking delivery of millions upon millions of seeds, all carefully selected by the local and national seed banks that own them.

  7. But of course, this isn’t an ideal world. Fowler, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, says: “if we had built this vault ten years ago we would have used it ten times already, for some major disasters – for the loss of the gene banks in Iraq and Afghanistan”, for example. And it’s not just the apocalyptic events – crop diversity is “going out with a whimper, not with a bang, in most cases”, he adds. Floods, power cuts, equipment failure – all can cause seed banks in poorer countries to lose their precious seeds. “Doomsday is every day,” Fowler says.

  8. Valuable bacterial archive destroyed

    Researchers are demanding an investigation into the destruction of a large collection of bacterial samples, some irreplaceable, from a lab at the Pittsburgh Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Pennsylvania. The archive, of nearly 10,000 samples of infectious bacteria, was the result of more than 20 years’ work and included some very rare strains.

    The samples were destroyed after the medical centre closed down its special pathogens laboratory, headed by Vincent Yu, in July 2006. Yu and his colleagues were planning to move the samples elsewhere, but did not get the chance.

    David Snydman of the Tufts–New England Medical Center in Boston and 242 other researchers have signed a petition, published in the April issue of Clinical Infectious Diseases, asking an independent review committee to investigate what led to the repository’s destruction.

  9. March 31, 2008

    Fighting The Shift With Seedbanks
    Category: Solutions

    The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (predicts that 25-30% of plant species will be extinct or endangered in the next century. Any way you cut it – that is a very bad thing. Many of those plant species will be crops – food we eat. Some of you may have caught the announcement of the “Doomsday Vault” in the news recently: a vault located 600 miles south of the North Pole on a Swedish Island designed to safeguard seeds from climate change, wars, and other on-coming disasters.

  10. Global seed vault marks 1-year anniversary with four-ton shipment of critical food crops

    Published: Thursday, February 26, 2009

    Four tons of seeds – almost 90,000 samples of hundreds of crop species – from food crop collections maintained by Canada, Ireland, Switzerland, USA, and three international agricultural research centers in Syria, Mexico and Colombia, were delivered today to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault as it celebrated its one-year anniversary. The repository, located near the village of Longyearbyen on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, has in one year amassed a collection of more than 400,000 unique seed samples – some 200 million seeds. “We are especially proud to see such a large number of countries work quickly to provide samples from their collections for safekeeping in the vault,” said Norwegian Agriculture Minister Lars Peder Brekk. “It shows that there are situations in the world today capable of transcending politics and inspiring a strong unity of purpose among a diverse community of nations.”

  11. Banana marks seed bank milestone
    By Rebecca Morelle
    Science reporter, BBC News

    An international seed bank has reached its target of collecting 10% of the world’s wild plants, with seeds of a pink banana among its latest entries.

    The wild banana, Musa itinerans, is a favourite of wild Asian elephants.

    Seeds from the plant, which is under threat from agriculture, join 1.7 billion already stored by Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank partnership.

    The project has been described as an “insurance strategy” against future biodiversity losses.

  12. Wild relatives of common crops may hold key to future of food

    A worldwide search for the wild kin of the most commonly consumed food crops kicked off Friday in Rome.

    Billed as the largest ever initiative of its kind, a decade-long hunt was launched for the hardy, weed-like relatives of 23 global food crops, including rice, beans and bananas. The ultimate goal of the initiative, led by the conservationist Global Crop Diversity Trust and an alliance of national agriculture research institutes, is to build a cache of genetically diverse descendants of essential food crops threatened by climate change.

  13. There’s a Heatwave at the Arctic ‘Doomsday Vault’

    What better place to build a Doomsday Vault than the remote, snow-covered islands of Norway’s Arctic Svalbard? Sitting around 1,000 kilometers from the North Pole, the facility is buried in permafrost to protect the precious seed samples housed there. But a freak heatwave is causing the region’s ice to melt.

    Following several days of near record-breaking hot weather in July, Svalbard temperatures topped out at 21.7℃, the country’s meteorological institute reported. This is the hottest ever recorded here, exceeding the previous record of 21.3℃ set over 40 years earlier and a stark contrast to the region’s average of between 5-7℃ for this time of year.

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