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Arctic vault an ark for seeds

By North44     Feb 17, 2007 in Environment
Seeds kept safe in Arctic
What would happen if we had no more seeds to plant? Canadian scientists have come up with a solition. It is called a Doomsday Vault in the Arctic.
It could be the world's safety net if a global catastrophe – extreme climate change, natural disaster, even nuclear war – ever destroys the planet's food sources.
Far inside an Arctic mountain, the vault will still be there, containing the foundation for all of the agriculture developed by mankind over the past 10,000 years. There will be three million seeds to start with, from every variety of food from every country on earth.
They will be sealed inside a high-tech cavern carved 120 metres into a sandstone mountain on the remote, ice-bound island of Spitsbergen. Part of the Svalbard archipelago, it sits midway between mainland Norway and the North Pole.
Construction on this seed "pod", known as the Svalbard International Seed Vault and described as the most secure conservation facility in the world, begins next month.
The cavern will cost the Norwegian government $5 million to build within the remains of a disused coal mine. But it will be operated by the Global Crop Diversity Trust, an international organization set up in 2004 and partly funded by Canada. Its mandate is to preserve Earth's crop diversity "in perpetuity."
The seeds, stored at minus 18C, will be protected by metre-thick walls of reinforced concrete, two airlocks and motion detectors. Not to mention the roaming polar bears that share the surrounding terrain with a small scientific community.
The vault's high-security, blast-proof doors will be opened only once or twice a year to check the contents and add new samples.
The length of time that seeds kept in a frozen state retain their ability to germinate depends on the species. Some crops, such as peas, may survive only for 20 to 30 years. Others, such as sunflowers and some grains, are believed to live on for decades, even centuries.
Eventually, however, all the samples will lose the ability to germinate.
Before that happens, seeds from the repository will be taken out and germinated to grow plants, whose fresh seeds will be redeposited, thus ensuring the original variety is perpetuated forever.
"It's like having an insurance policy on your house," according to Pat Mooney, executive director of ECT Group, an Ottawa food-security agency.
If the vault's mechanical system ever fails, the surrounding permafrost will maintain the required sub-zero temperatures. Because permafrost warms much more slowly than air and the cavern is set deep within the rock, global warming will have no effect.
Are they sure?
"We looked very far into the future," Cary Fowler, executive director of the Rome-based Diversity Trust said, announcing the construction start.
"We looked at radiation levels inside the mountain and at the area's geological structure. We also modelled climate change in a drastic form 200 years into future, which included the melting of ice sheets at the North and South Poles, and Greenland, to make sure this site was above the resulting water level."
To be precise, seven metres above.
Svalbard will be the ultra-secure back-up for the 1,400 seed banks that already exist around the world. They collectively hold 1.5 million distinct crop samples.
The largest is maintained by the United States, with 464,000 samples. Agriculture Canada's repository in Saskatoon contains 125,000, and is responsible for conserving the world's base collection of barleys and oats.
But a large number of existing seed banks are in jeopardy. Located in developing countries, many face threats from political instability, unreliable funding and mismanagement. Some have been demolished in recent years, the victims of war in Rwanda, Afghanistan and Iraq. Last September, a typhoon ripped through the Philippines seed collection, swamping the samples in water and mud.
It's mainly for these countries that the Arctic vault is being created, says Ken Richards, research manager of Agriculture Canada's genetics resources program in Saskatoon. "It will be extremely important in ensuring that the food supplies of developing countries are kept safe," he says.
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