Global need

Local Threats

Keeping seeds safe has seed vaults and other repositories scanning the local environment for risks

The job of a seed vault is to store and protect the world’s precious genetic resources from existing and future threats.

In the absence of a crystal ball, planners behind the 1,700 such facilities globally have had to imagine what the future might have in store, whether it is the threat posed by terrorists or a changing climate. 

Here’s how two of the world’s vaults, the Norwegian government’s facility in the permafrost of Svalbard, and the U.S. government’s vault at Fort Collins, Colorado have prepared for an unknown future. 

Both are concerned about outside interventions, such as terrorist attacks, of course. 

But their most pressing concerns are keeping those seeds safe from more mundane, but still very pressing, threats due to the surrounding environment. 

The main worry for the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is global warming, said Grethe-Helene Evjen, the vault’s project manager. 

“The researchers say maybe in 100 years’ time there will be very little permafrost, if we can’t do anything with the climate change. This is the future,” Evjen said. 

“Since the seed vault was established, Svalbard has experienced higher temperatures,” she said. 

The vault at Svalbard is located deep inside a mountain near Longyearbyen, Norway. The town is on Spitzbergen, one of the islands that make up the Svalbard Archipelago which is situated about halfway between the northern coast of mainland Norway and the North Pole. 

The site, which opened in 2008, was selected for its remoteness from other gene banks, while still having daily flights, according to Evjen. That geographic diversity is a form of risk management. The permafrost inside the mountain keeps the deposits of more than one million seed samples well frozen at minus 18 Celsius.  

Should global warming effect a significant rise in sea levels, the Svalbard vault was perched high enough to remain dry, according to its website. 

But those rising temperatures have meant even in this frigid climate steps had to be taken to mediate the risk from global warming. Some of the outer parts of the facilty thawed out, and some of the surrounding soil didn’t freeze, Evjen said. 

A cooling system was recently installed to artificially freeze the ground and serve as a back-up to the keeping the vault frigid. 

The core mandate of the facility is to store seeds safely, acting as a reserve for researchers around the globe.

“It’s a very passive storage. We don’t have any scientific work or any work related to such things. It’s a back-up storage,” Grethe-Helene Evjen, project manager, Svalbard Global Seed Vault. 

Over in Colorado, the National Laboratory for Genetic Resources Preservation (NLGRP) at Fort Collins is faced with two different threats. 

“When [the United States Department of Agriculture] built the seed vault, they evaluated what sort of environmental disasters might happen,” Stephanie Greene, the supervisory plant physiologist at the NLGRP, said.

Constructed in 1956 in the vicinity of a water reservoir, the seed vault was built to withstand being inundated by 11 feet of water, Greene said. 

The other main threats to the NLGRP are tornadoes, she added. 

“They also built the walls with concrete and rebar, fortifying it so it could basically take the weight of a VW bus falling on the roof,” Greene said.. 

While Svalbard was chosen for its remoteness, the site for the NLGRP was selected for its dry climate, with Fort Collins frequently having 20 per cent or less humidity, Greene said. 

Like Svalbard, the NLGRP serves as a back-up to gene banks, holding “thousands and thousands” of seed samples from around the United States, as well as Canada, she said. 

“Our main focus is to provide security duplication and secure storage for a duplicate collection of the National Plant GermPlasm System,” she said. The process to make a deposit is quite straightforward.

“You contact the curator of a collection. Say you have some corn seeds for forever and forever and you think they would be good to preserve. You would contact the corn curator, and you would ask them if that would be possible. If it was material the curator felt was unique or diverse, then it’s quite likely that the curator would be quite happy to accept the seed,” Dr. Stephanie Greene, supervisory plant physiologist at the National Laboratory for Genetic Resource Preservation. 

The seed collections at both sites are crucial to humankind’s survival, both sites have taken increased security measures. Evjen said a more secure entrance was recently built at Svalbard, and Greene said access to the NLGRP is highly restricted. 

Listen to interview with Dr. Stephanie Greene, the supervisory plant physiologist at the NLGRP

  • Svalbard is the ultimate backup doomsday vault, seeking to acquire at least seed sample from all other seed vaults.

  • The vault currently has a collection of about one million seeds. The maximum capacity is approximately 4.5 million.

  • With severe damage to Syria’s gene bank in Aleppo during the country’s civil war, new vaults were constructed in Lebanon and Morocco with deposits coming from Svalbard.

  • Located near Longyearbyen, Norway, a town of about 2,000 people on Spitzbergen Island, which is part of the Svalbard Archipelago.

  • Seed deposits remain the property of the depositing gene bank and can be withdrawn when the need arises.

  • The vault is owned and operated by the Norwegian government, in co-operation with the Nordic Genetic Resource Centre (NordGen) and the Global Crop Diversity Trust.

Contributor: Glen Hallick