The Planet

The Uncertain Fate Of The World’s Most Important Freezer

by Stacey Leasca

May 23, 2017

In 2008, the Svalbard Global Seed Trust was heralded as one of the greatest inventions of the year. Located on a remote island in the Svalbard archipelago, halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole, the seed vault is a monolithic structure buried deep into the hillside of an arctic mountain. Inside the concrete fortress is a facility capable of storing and preserving a “genetic bank” of 4.5 million varieties of the world’s crops, all kept at a bone-chilling minus 18 degrees Celsius (minus .4 degrees Fahrenheit). 

“The seed vault is a biological Library of Alexandria, a priceless asset whose importance will only grow. It's valuable not only as a resource for any sort of doomsday scenario, but also as a record of one of humanity's most consequential achievements: agriculture,” says Jamie Henn, co-founder and strategy and communications director at the non-profit 350.org.

But that future looked bleak recently, as the vault that contains the world’s largest collection of crop diversity was nearly flooded, apparently due to record high temperatures in the Arctic. A rapid melting of permafrost (key to the seed vault’s preservation) paired with heavy rain, surprised researchers who feared the Earth’s agricultural safeguard was at risk.

“It was not in our plans to think that the permafrost would not be there and that it would experience extreme weather like that,” Hege Njaa Aschim, spokesperson for the Norwegian government, which owns the vault, told The Guardian. “A lot of water went into the start of the tunnel and then it froze to ice, so it was like a glacier when you went in.”

The vault, which already contains the most diverse collection of food crop seeds in the world, thanks to the 930,000 samples of seeds, was meant to operate without any human assistance, according to Aschim; however, now a team is monitoring the vault 24/7 to determine if this was a mere one-off event, or if the human race needs to start looking for a second “last chance” option.

“What's so scary about the current moment is that in nearly every area, from coral reef die-off to permafrost melt, scientists are saying that what they're witnessing are worst-case scenarios, or even worse than they could have imagined,” Henn said. “That's bad news for any of us who care about the future of the planet.” 

Ketil Isaksen, of Norway’s Meteorological Institute, additionally told Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet“The Arctic, and especially Svalbard, warms up faster than the rest of the world. The climate is changing dramatically and we are all amazed at how quickly it is going.”

The structure and the seeds are safe, according to a statement released by the organization, and it’s imperative it remains that way. A future where these seeds are needed to preserve the integrity of the planet’s natural resources isn’t far off. In fact, it’s already here. In 2015, the vault had to be reopened to share seeds as a result of another man-made disaster: the Syrian war.

Scientists from Aleppo were forced to compromise their supply of drought- and heat-resistant wheat strains they’d been developing to replant in Lebanon and Morocco in order to safely continue their research. The team’s work could not only help the future of Syria, it could aid in agricultural shifts due to rising temperatures.

“This variety could help us adapt to climate change,” Mahmoud El-Solh,  director general at the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), told CNN while holding a precious fava bean in 2015. “You know that climate change is a reality and climate change is changing the whole environment in terms of more drought, hotter environments, and even new diseases.”

The seed vault relies on donations to continue its collection. Citizens of the United States and Germany can make a tax-exempt donation to the Crop Trust through Friends of Global Crop Diversity Ltd. or the Crop Trust Foundation.

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The Uncertain Fate Of The World’s Most Important Freezer