The Permafrost and Global Food Security
My first day in Spitsbergen brought a very special highlight. I was fortunate enough to come on a day that coincides with a visit by Professor Roland von Bothmer from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, who also looks after public relations for the SVALBARD SEED VAULT.
You may vaguely remember hearing about this when it was set up in 2008, with the aim of storing samples of food seeds from all over the globe under super-safe conditions, deep under the permafrost of Svalbard.
You may also have heard of some damage to the entrance to the vault because of permafrost melting. Was climate change already threatening the very facility that should help ensure food security no matter what changes – climatic or otherwise – endanger the planet?
No way, says Prof. von Bothmer. The damage to the entrance to the tunnel which leads down to the subterranean vault has no effect on the operation of the vault itself, he says, and the reason for building this facility this far north and under this permafrost, is still valid. It’s thought to be one of the safest places on the planet, even in a rapidly warming world.
Access to the vault is very strictly controlled.
Human warmth affects the temperature inside. So there are only a few visits a year, often with visiting heads of state or the UN, as with the case last year. And very occasionally, a visiting journalist.
Professor von Bothmer is a man who loves his work and is dedicated to it. He has collected seed samples all over the world himself and considers himself very lucky to be involved in the Svalbard Seed Vault project, in a way the highlight of his professional activities to date. The idea of protecting crop diversity in a world where for one reason or another species are dying at an alarming rate, is one that inspires him.
The tunnel entrance is high above Svalbard airport. It’s cold outside today, but he warned me it would be much colder where we were going. We went into the entrance tunnel, where workmen are carrying out some maintenance and repair work. Then we went into the warmer “master control room” – well, the computer room – and changed into thermal suits.
They look hilarious, but I wouldn\’t like to go down into the vault without one.Minus 18 C. is thought to be the ideal temperature for storing seed material. So it was pretty “nippy” when we finally got into the main chamber, which has a complex cooling system in addition to the natural permafrost.
You go through a system of “air locks” to reduce any warm temperature impact from your body on the vault itself. It is still being extended into the hillside to increase capacity.
Seed samples are sent in from gene banks around the globe – we saw samples of Danish barley and some seeds from India, vacuum packed, ready for storage – for who knows how many hundred years?
The climate change crisis has given the vault increased relevance, even over the past two years, says the Professor. Even with “winners and losers”, areas being hit by drought, flooding, warmth, cold, new or changing pests and diseases, will need a diversity of crop types to cope. So this remote, icy area with its dearth of arable land and crops of its own, could provide the back-up seeds to feed the world of the future.
Svalbard Seed Vault
DateMay 26, 2010 | 6:57 pm
TagsEPOCA, food security, Greenpeace, IFM-Geomar, Ny Alesund, ocean acidification, research, science, seeds, Svalbard