By Johnny Wood
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.
Deep Trouble?<p>The <a href="https://www.sciencealert.com/here-s-what-it-s-like-inside-the-doomsday-vault-that-stores-every-known-crop-on-the-planet" target="_blank">Svalbard Global Seed Vault</a> – also known as the Doomsday Vault – is a gigantic bunker, sitting deep inside a mountain surrounded by snowy wastelands. The facility stores close to <a href="https://www.seedvault.no/about/the-facility/" target="_blank">900,000 seed samples</a> from around the world and acts as a sort of back-up plan for agriculture, should disaster render parts of the planet unlivable or the world suffer a catastrophe, such as nuclear war or extreme climate change.</p><p>It's been described as an "<a href="https://www.newscientist.com/article/2235116-svalbard-doomsday-vault-gets-first-big-seed-deposit-since-upgrade/" target="_blank">insurance policy for food security</a>."</p><p>Inside the vault, <a href="https://www.sciencealert.com/here-s-what-it-s-like-inside-the-doomsday-vault-that-stores-every-known-crop-on-the-planet" target="_blank">temperatures are kept below minus 18℃</a>, cold enough to keep the seed samples safe for at least 200 years, even without backup power. But climate change is causing problems for the vault.</p><p>In 2016, which was the <a href="https://climate.nasa.gov/news/2841/2018-fourth-warmest-year-in-continued-warming-trend-according-to-nasa-noaa/" target="_blank">warmest year on record according to NASA</a>, soaring temperatures caused <a href="https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/05/20/doomsday-arctic-seed-vault-breached-permafrost-melts/" target="_blank">meltwater to breach the vault's entrance tunnel</a>. While no seeds were damaged, the <a href="https://www.sciencealert.com/svalbard-home-of-the-doomsday-vault-just-recorded-its-highest-ever-temperature" target="_blank">floodwater left an expensive repair bill</a> and tarnished the vault's reputation as impregnable to natural or manmade disasters.<span></span><br></p>
The Heat Is On<p>Warming in the islands has been underway for some time. Figures for 2017 show average temperatures are between 3-5℃ hotter than in 1971, according to the <a href="https://www.miljodirektoratet.no/globalassets/publikasjoner/M1242/M1242.pdf" target="_blank">Climate in Svalbard 2100</a> report, with the largest increases affecting the inner fjords.</p><p><span></span>Between 2071 and 2100, average temperatures throughout the archipelago will increase by between 7-10℃, the report predicts, shortening the snow season and causing loss of near-surface permafrost.</p><p><span></span>What's happening in Svalbard is symptomatic of wider changes impacting the Arctic expanse, which is <a href="https://www.upi.com/Science_News/2018/12/12/NOAA-Arctic-warming-at-twice-the-rate-of-the-rest-of-the-planet/5141544580754/" target="_blank">warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet</a>. Parts of the <a href="https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1029/2019GL082187" target="_blank">Canadian Arctic are thawing 70 years earlier than predicted</a>, scientists from the University of Alaska Fairbanks found, a sign that climate change could be happening faster than first thought.</p><p>As warmer-than-average summers destabilize permafrost, much of which has lain frozen for millennia, methane and other gases trapped in the ice could be released at scale, accelerating climate change. In turn, warmer temperatures would lead to further permafrost loss.<br><br>Melting ice, on land and at sea, <a href="https://www.wwf.org.uk/updates/11-arctic-species-affected-climate-change" target="_blank">destroys animal habitats for species like polar bears and Arctic foxes</a>, which use their snowy white coats as camouflage either to hunt for food or avoid predators.</p>
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Just over a decade after it first opened, the world's "doomsday vault" of seeds is imperiled by climate change as the polar region where it's located warms faster than any other area on the planet.
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The Svalbard Global Seed Vault in the Arctic Circle—also known as the "doomsday vault" safeguarding the world's most diverse collection of seeds—now holds 1,059,646 unique crop varieties after receiving more than 70,000 samples on Monday.
Depositors from 23 seed banks around the world braved sub-zero temperatures to deliver duplicate seeds of vital staples such as rice, wheat and maize; black-eyed pea, a major protein source in Africa and South Asia; and samples of sorghum, pearl millet and pigeon pea. Several lesser-known crops such as the Estonian onion potato and the Bambara groundnut, a drought-tolerant crop being developed in Africa, also made the journey.
Flooding breached a supposedly impregnable Arctic "doomsday" vault containing a collection of seeds stored for an apocalypse scenario last week, after warmer-than-average temperatures caused a layer of permafrost to thaw.
A major seed deposit critical to ensuring global food security was made to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in the Arctic Circle on Wednesday.
Despite a backdrop of geopolitical volatility, nearly 50,000 samples of seeds from seed collections in Benin, India, Pakistan, Lebanon, Morocco, the Netherlands, the U.S, Mexico, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Belarus and the U.K have traveled to the vault on the Svalbard archipelago between mainland Norway and the North Pole on Wednesday for long-term safekeeping.
The Crop Trust
The preparation and shipment of seeds to the facility has been funded in-part by the Crop Trust, the only organization working worldwide to create, fund and manage an efficient and effective global system of seed collections.
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, the world's largest collection of agricultural biodiversity, is a safe and secure vault supported by the Crop Trust which can store up to 4.5 million samples of crops from all over the world. By preserving duplicate samples of seeds held in gene banks worldwide, the vault provides a "fail safe" insurance against loss of crop diversity caused by climate change, natural disaster or war.
"Today's [Wednesday] seed deposit at Svalbard supported by the Crop Trust shows that despite political and economic differences in other arenas, collective efforts to conserve crop diversity and produce a global food supply for tomorrow continue to be strong," Marie Haga, executive director of the Crop Trust, said when speaking from the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.
"Together, the nations that have deposited their seed collections account for over a quarter of the world's population. Nearly every country has agreed on the importance on conserving crop diversity through Target 2.5 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals to conserve agricultural diversity in seed collections. Crop diversity is a fundamental foundation for the end of hunger."
To support the Crop Trust's critical work at Svalbard and gene banks around the world, GoPro for a Cause, GoPro's program dedicated to impact storytelling for non-profit organizations, launched a fundraising initiative and short documentary Wednesday to help the Svalbard Seed Vault ensure ongoing crop conservation.
"We're thrilled to support the Crop Trust's efforts at Svalbard Seed Vault with the launch of GoPro's short documentary that offers a unique, first-person perspective on the Svalbard Global Seed Vault and its mission," Erica Stanulis, director of Global Corporate Social Responsibility at GoPro, said.
Our production team has spent more than a year filming, editing and interviewing the team and we're thrilled that the Crop Trust will use this film to share their story with more people.
The Crop Trust provides crucial funding and training for routine gene bank operations, such as quality and information management. Without this basic support for diverse varieties of food crops—like the ones that travel to Svalbard—the future of the world's global food supply is at risk.
The Crop Trust's funding allows millions of plant genetic resources to be recorded and ultimately shared and used around the world to improve agricultural production and prevent loss of crop diversity in the face of natural disasters, climate change and war.
The Crop Trust
A case in point is the work of the International Center for Agriculture Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) previously located in Syria. When fighting struck Aleppo, ICARDA requested its duplicate seeds stored in Svalbard were withdrawn so it could continue its multiplication and breeding efforts in the safer locations of Morocco and Lebanon. Having successfully achieved this through the Crop Trust's support, a portion of the seeds withdrawn in 2015 returned to Svalbard Wednesday.
"Collaboration between the Norwegian government, NordGen, the Crop Trust, CGIAR and ICARDA shows what is possible when international partners come together to find solutions to pressing regional and global challenges," Aly Abousabaa, director general of ICARDA, said. "We are demonstrating today [Wednesday] that we can rely on our gene banks and their safety duplications, despite adverse circumstances, so we can get one step closer to a food secure world."
Seed samples for some of the world's most vital food sources like the potato, sorghum, rice, barley, chickpea, lentil and wheat will be deposited at Svalbard in the coming days, bringing the total number of seed samples at the facility to 930,821.