Hundreds of plant species around the world were backed up today at a “doomsday vault” in Svalbard, Norway, the first big deposit to the Arctic facility since an upgrade to future-proof it against climate change.
The seeds of onions from Brazil, guar beans from central Asia and wildflowers from a meadow at Prince Charles’s home in the UK are among the species being safeguarded at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, housed in a mountain cavern about 1200 kilometres from the North Pole. Around 60,000 new seed samples were added, taking the total to more than a million.
In twilight on the mountainside where the vault’s iconic entrance juts out, the first seeds were delivered to a backdrop of a male choir singing. As the snow came down, teams at seed banks from Portugal to Mexico walked their valuable cargo into the entrance tunnel, their names read out by one by one.
Norwegian prime minister Erna Solberg attended the mass deposit, the single biggest since the opening of the facility in 2008. “The deposit event is especially timely,” she said ahead of the event, because this is the year by which countries should have safeguarded the genetic diversity of crops to meet the United Nations goal of eliminating hunger by 2030.
Speaking in Svalbard, the president of Ghana Nana Akufo-Addo said of the vault: “It is the great insurance policy for food security.” Agriculture in Ghana is already under pressure from climate change, he added.
The vault is designed as the ultimate insurance policy for restoring crop diversity to smaller seed banks around the world after extreme weather, conflict, fire and other events. The first withdrawal from the bank took place in 2015, to help conservationists who lost access to a major seed bank in Aleppo in the Syrian civil war.
However, the resilience of the vault itself has recently come under the spotlight. The permafrost on Spitsbergen, the island in the Svalbard archipelago where the bank is located, means the seeds should stay frozen even if the cooling system that keeps the vault at -18°C is hit by a power failure.
Yet in October 2016, the entrance tunnel to the facility was flooded due to a combination of heavy rainfall and permafrost melting. While the vault itself was untouched, that year the Arctic experienced record heat that scientists say was almost certainly due to human-made climate change.
The latest deposit marks the first time the vault has opened its doors to new seeds since a €20 million upgrade that includes a new waterproofed access tunnel, plus measures to prepare it for a world on track to be several degrees hotter by the century’s end.
Solberg told New Scientist that the fact the facility had required upgrading so soon after its opening was a symbol that climate change is coming more rapidly than expected. “Now we have planned for worst case scenarios in a better way,” she says.
Seed collectors from 36 banks around the world – eight for the first time – brought seeds for accessions, the term used for new samples entering the bank. The Svalbard facility is effectively a backup of the backups.
Among the seeds that made the three-hour flight north from Oslo are those from the Cherokee Nation, the first US indigenous tribe to deposit seeds at the vault. Corn that is sacred to the Cherokee people, bean varieties and a squash that can stay fresh for a year without refrigeration are among their crops being backed up.
The UK’s Kew Gardens brought 27 wild plant species from Prince Charles’s residence in the west of England. These include wild carrot (Daucus carota) and some forage species such as perennial ryegrass (Lolium perenne), red fescue (Festuca rubra) and clover (Trifolium sp.), as well as five species of orchid. “It’s more urgent than ever that we act now to protect this diversity before it really is too late,” the prince said in a statement.
The Indian seed bank ICRISAT is brought more than 2800 accessions, adding to the more than 110,000 it has already deposited.
Others like the Julius Kühn Institute in Germany brought their first seeds, including the European crab apple (Malus sylvestris), a wild relative of domesticated apples. Seed banks in Morocco and South Korea are also made their first deliveries.
The vault will still have plenty of space after the new arrivals, as it has capacity for around 4.5 million samples.
Hannes Dempewolf at the Crop Trust, one of the partners that runs the vault with the Norwegian government, says that although today’s deposit takes the samples past the milestone of one million, Svalbard is “not just a numbers game” but is instead about prioritising unique species.
It is best practice to have a double backup of global seed banks, he says, both at the Svalbard vault and in other seed banks. Maintaining plant diversity is “incredibly important” for developing new, more productive crop varieties, he says.
But Dempewolf says seed banks are increasingly being called on to help farmers adapt to a warming world, too. “As we see the climate heating up and places looking for [crop] varieties to use in more challenging conditions, these seed banks are being more actively used.”
Safeguarding a diversity of crops is considered vital to humanity being able to feed itself as climate change takes hold.
Justify Shava at the SADC Plant Genetic Resources Centre in Zambia, a regional seed bank for 16 African countries, says farmers have called on it to provide varieties of sorghum – a type of grass used for flour – that can cope with very little water and grow rapidly.
Seed banks in poorer countries also face their own challenges. In some cases, the biggest short-term obstacle is a lack of funding, because they aren’t a political priority, says Dempewolf. But he says they should also “expect the unexpected”, such as the impact of conflict.
The seeds in Aleppo were also backed up across 11 seed banks globally, but withdrawing them from just one – the Svalbard vault – was the cheapest option, says Ahmed Amri, the head of genetic resources at the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA).
“Surprisingly, they are in top shape,” he says of the seeds recovered from the vault to replenish ICARDA’s collection, which was moved from Aleppo, Syria, to escape the civil war and is now in Lebanon and Morocco. He says the withdrawal shows the Svalbard vault is of practical use as well as of importance for long-term conservation.
ICARDA began depositing seeds in Norway in 2012, as the situation in Syria began deteriorating. It is impossible to say what condition the seeds left behind in Aleppo are in, says Amri, because the only thing he knows is that it had electricity to keep cooling systems running until 2017. The Syrian army has since entered the premises, but hasn’t let experts in to assess the seeds, he says, though he hopes to one day recover them.