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Birthday gift for Svalbard Seed Vault


The seed vault on Svalbard (Pic I. Quaile 2010)

On the Arctic island of Svalbard in the Spitsbergen archipelago, 1500 kilometers from the North Pole, special deliveries are arriving this week. Twenty thousand new seed samples from around the world are being deposited in the Global Seed Vault, which I was privileged to visit in 2010.

Far below a mountain of permafrost, the seeds are secured for future generations. Here they are safe from war, earthquakes, tsunamis and other catastrophes. The “Doomsday Vault”, as it is sometimes called, was set up on Svalbard six years ago. Some 800,000 different seed samples have since been brought north. This week marks six years of the seed vault, ten years since the Global Crop Diversity Trust (GCDT), was opened.

Farm crop diversity dwindling

“We need to conserve the diversity of the major crops, in order to be able to feed the world in the future. This diversity is really the building blocks for the future of agriculture. And agriculture is up for some major challenges,” Marie Haga, the Executive Director of GCDT, told me in an interview as she prepared to head for Svalbard for an anniversary board meeting.

“We need to feed one billion more people in the next ten years and we have to do this in the midst of climate change.”

At the same time, many species of food crop are disappearing, she explained. “Since 1900, the US has lost 90% of the diversity of its fruit and vegetables in the fields. That is dramatic.”

Haga said there are similar events being documented in European countries, including major food producing nations like Spain.

“In the 1970s, Spain had 400 varieties of melons in the fields. Today they have only 12. We we are losing diversity out there in farmers’ fields because of the way we do agriculture,” Haga said. “That’s why it is so important that we conserve these seeds in seed banks around the world.”

Haga believes that by saving seeds and preserving a diverse collection of plant genes, we will be prepared for the climate challenges of the future.

“The temperature is increasing globally. The weather is more unpredictable,” she said. “We know we will not dramatically change the way we do agriculture over the next few years. And that means we are even more dependent on these seeds that are stored in plant gene banks around the world.”

War and disaster endanger crop diversity

GCDT supports an international network of gene banks which collect seeds from their particular region. But in the event of war or natural disaster, these facilities may be vulnerable to damage.

“We know we have lost plant gene banks in the Philippines for instance, in floods and fires. Very important gene banks have been lost in Afghanistan, These days we are very concerned about what is happening to a very important seed bank in Aleppo in Syria. Something could happen to the very important diversity of wheat we have in that seed bank. ”

The remote Arctic Norwegian island of Svalbard

The remote Arctic Norwegian island of Svalbard (Pic I. Quaile 2010)

But the Svalbard Seed vault is considered one of the safest seed storage sites in the world. “It is in permafrost and we know that will last for a long time even though the climate is changing,” said Haga. “The seed vault is far above sea level. It is in a very stable part of the world. There are no earthquakes and it’s a politically stable area.”

As the conflict in Syria continues, the seed bank there is in danger. But the same seeds are also stored at the site in Svalbard. “So if something happens to the gene bank in Syria, we know it is possible to retrieve the material on this island in the far north.”

This week 20,000 new samples are arriving on the Arctic island to mark the seed bank’s tenth anniversary,

“For the first time we will get a substantial deposit of seeds from Japan, which is important. We know Japan has gone through terrible stresses with the tsunami and earthquakes.”

So far, the “Doomsday Vault” has never been called on to release its underground treasures – but they are ready if the need should arise.

“There are lots of uncertainties around the globe, some man-made, some by natural disasters. In case something were to go terribly wrong, we know it’s a very unique possibility to go to Svalbard and retrieve material lost out there in the real world.”


February 26, 2014 | 3:50 pm



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Climate Change threatening Arctic Seed Vault

I heard one piece of news this week which shocked me – and it worries me that it didn’t make its way into most of the media.
Earlier this year, the Global Seed Vault was opened on the Norwegian Arctic island of Spitsbergen. The idea is to store seeds of all the earth’s important plants, so that if we should experience any kind of major catastrophe, from nuclear explosions to mass epidemics or – yes – climate change, there could be a new start with the seeds from this bunker. It’s built into a hill, supposedly covered with permafrost.The seeds have to be kept between minus 18 and minus 20 degrees C.
But the vault hasn’t even survived one polar summer, with temperatures on the rise. The permafrost has partially thawed and the entrance tunnel to the vault has been damaged.
The Global Seed Vault management seem to be playing this down and say they’ll just have to use the bunker’s cooling system more often. But surely, that’s not quite the point?
Story and pictures on Spiegel Online
And here’s the link to the Global Seed Vault project:
All about the Spitsbergen bunker:


September 11, 2008 | 7:38 am



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Seeds in transit: from Australia to Svalbard

Ice blog followers may remember my account of a visit to the Svalbard seed vault, which preserves a wide variety of seeds safe under the permafrost of an Arctic mountain for posterity. The story is also online at DW’s environment website.

The idea is that saving a wide diversity of crop seeds could help humankind survive in the future in spite of any disasters occurring – or, for instance, to help agriculture cope with the challenges of a changing climate.
Well the vault has just celebrated its third birthday with a bumper delivery of seeds from different parts of the world. For the first time ever, seeds have been delivered from Australia, just about as far away as you can get from the Arctic. Australia is one of the areas of the world that are particularly vulerable to climate change. It has had to cope with an increasing number of extreme weather events, droughts and floods. The seeds brought to Svalbard were the furthest travelled of the more than 600,000 samples now stored at the vault.
Most of Australia’s food crops come from outside the country, and so are dependent on global crop diversity.
There’s more information on the website of the Global Crop Diversity Trust. See also “Wild Relatives can save our food supply” on why it’s important to preserve crop seeds for posterity.


February 25, 2011 | 2:58 pm



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Alpine ice – no more than a memory? New archive of ice cores

Alpine glacier - endangered species? (Pic: I.Quaile)

Alpine glacier – endangered species? (Pic: I.Quaile)

It was with mixed feelings that I read an article drawn to my attention by a colleague earlier in the week.

Protecting Ice Memory” is the subject –a description of a new project to create a “global archive of glacial ice for future generations”.

I am generally enthusiastic about all projects concerning ice. The worrying thing is the reason why this project has been deemed necessary.

History melting

“The goal is to build the world’s first library of ice archives extracted from glaciers which are threatened by global warming”. There we have it. Another frightening acknowledgement of the extent and speed of global change.

How sad that our human-induced warming is threatening our ice, especially here in the European Alps, where we do not have as much ice as in some other parts of the globe. How good that we have the technology to save some of it for posterity. How frustrating that while we also have the technology to shift to a zero-carbon economy and stop the ice melting, we are not actually doing it anything like fast enough.

Starting on Monday August 15th and carrying on until early September, an international team of glaciologists and engineers (French, Italian, Russian and American) will be travelling to Mont Blanc, in particular to the “Col du Dome” glacier area, which is 4,300 metres or 14,108 feet up. They will be drilling the first ice cores for the “Protecting Ice Memory” project.

Swiss glacier covered for protection

Some glaciers are being covered in summer to stop them melting, this one I saw in Switzerland. Proved ineffective. (I.Quaile)

Saving the cores

The team will be coordinated by Patrick Ginot from the French Research Institute for Development (IRD), working within the UGA-CNRS Laboratory of Glaciology and Environmental Geophysics (LGGE), and Jerome Chappelaz, director of Research at the CMRS and working within ths same laboratory.

The team will be extracting three ice cores each 130 metres long. These will be taken down by helicopter and taken to the LGGE in Grenoble. Clearly they will have to kept very cold during the process.

In 2019 (why only then, I wonder?), one core will be analysed to start a database which is ultimately to be made available to the whole world scientific community.

The other two will be transported by ship to ANTARCTICA. Yes, you read correctly. There, they will be taken on tracked vehicles across the high plateaus to be stored at the Concordia station, which is run by the French Paul-Emile-Victor Polar Institute (IPEV) and its Italian partner, the National Antarctic Research Programme (PNRA)

In the long term, dozens of ice cores are to be stored in a snow cave at -54° Celsius, which the project describes as “the most reliable and natural freezer in the world”.

The Mont Blanc glacier is the first step. The next will be carried out in 2017 on the Illimani glacier in the Bolivian Andes.

"Where's my ice"? (Swiss Alps, Pic: I.Quaile)

“Where’s my ice”? (Swiss Alps, Pic: I.Quaile)

Global operation

It seems other countries with access to glaciers are also hoping to join the project, including Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Brazil, the USA, Russia, China, Nepal and Canada. That sounds like a real mega-project.

I have commented often enough here on the Ice Blog on the dwindling ice in my own favourite hiking territory in the German and Swiss Alps. Last week it was the turn of the New Zealand Alps to be the focus of this rather sadly motivated attention.

iceblogger iq

Ice just a memory? Iceblogger in her element in Switzerland. (Pic. I.Quaile)

The scientists who came up with the project had the idea after observing a rise in temperatures on several glaciers. At ten year intervals, they say the temperature near the glaciers on the Col du Dome and Illimani in the Andes has risen between 1.5 degrees and 2 degrees (Those figures sound familiar from somewhere…)

“At the current rate, we are forecasting that their surface will undergo systematic melting over the summer in the next few years and decades. Due to this melting and the percolation of meltwater through the underlying layers of snow, these are unique pages in the history of our environment which will be lost forever”, says the project description.

Iceblogger in the Svalbard Seed Vault

Iceblogger in the Svalbard Seed Vault

The scientists compare their project to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault on the Norwegian Arctic island of Spitsbergen. Before I read that part, this very comparison had already come to my mind. I had a rare opportunity to visit that vault a couple of years ago.


Svalbard to Antarctica

But one of the very worrying things in that connection is that even that “secure coldspot” has in turn been affected by permafrost melt – at least at a level close to the surface, which caused damage to the entrance area in the early stages.

Will the Svalbard vault ultimately have to be moved to the even colder Antarctic at some point in the future, one might wonder?

I remember a visit to the Alfred-Wegener Institute in Bremerhaven, Germany’s polar agency. One of the highlights was a look into the laboratory where ice cores are processed. Clearly, these provide invaluable evidence of how our planet and life on it have developed. Climate and environmental archives of a quite unique nature.

“Our generation of scientists, which bears witness to global warming, has a particular responsibility to future generations. That is why we will be donating these ice samples from the world’s most fragile glaciers to the scientific community of the decades and centuries to come, when these glaciers will have disappeared or lost their data quality”, says Carlo Barbante, the Italian project initiator and Director of the Instutite for the Dynamics of Environmental Processes – CNS, Ca’Foscari University of Venice”. What a sobering thought – and a daunting task.

And what an inspiring campaign to rescue what it seems we will not be able to save in time in the natural world.

Projects like this cost a lot of money. It is relying on private sponsors. The current European project has funding. The Université Grenoble Alpes foundation is now running a campaign to fund the Bolivian expedition.

Here’s hoping the money will be forthcoming.

And here’s hoping the international community will speed up efforts to halt global warming before we have to create archives to try to document all the ecosystems, species and habitats we are losing faster than we can count them.



August 5, 2016 | 2:05 pm



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Food and sex in Svalbard’s icy waters?

The Helmer Hanssen anchored at Ny Alesund

The Helmer Hanssen anchored at Ny Alesund

This is my first post from the Polar Marine Night expedition, from the Kongsfjord in Svalbard.

On the flight from Oslo to Longyearbyen, the main settlement on the island,  after a period with a beautiful sunset red strip in the sky, it was dark by half past midday and I realized I had seen my last sunrays for this week.

The last sunrays on the way north…

Flying in to Longyearbyen airport, I could see a white mountain, its dark silhouette outlined by the airport lights. Having been here before in the summer sun, I realized somewhere up there was the famous seed vault where safe supplies of seeds for the world’s food crops are stored under the permafrost, supposedly safe from wars or some other disastrous calamities which might require a “new start” for humanity. I was fortunate enough to visit it on a previous trip a couple of years ago. At the moment, though, the darkness reveals very little of the fascinating landscape.

plane 105

Winter travel in the High North

New winter visitors to Ny Alesund

Our small, robust propeller plane carrying scientists and service staff from the research station, one fellow journalist as well as two young German scientists joining the scientific cruise had us in Ny Alesund late afternoon. It was strange to see the station completely in the dark, although it is not as deserted as it once was in winter, thanks to this Polar Night research. As our driver told us on the way to the harbour, (nothing is far from anywhere else in the small settlement, but hauling luggage across slippery snow and ice in the dark is something I can do without) there are around 60 people on the base, whereas once there was only a skeleton crew of around 13 over the winter.

The French-German station, the Norwegian station and the Chinese building are manned throughout the winter. The others are summer-only stations. Different scientists from around the globe come in and out for the boat trips to investigate marine life in the polar night. This is only the second year of this heightened interest in life in the dark season up here.

Select company of hardy researchers

crew 148

Members of the crew between shifts on the deck

The RV Helmer Hanssen – named after Amundsen’s navigator to the South Pole – was waiting at the quay. Built as an ice-going fishing vessel, these days the only  trawling done here is in the interests of science. Since we left this evening, nets have been deployed at different levels at regular intervals bringing samples of Arctic sea life on board and into the labs. There are 16 students and professors on board, with a crew of 12 to operate the ship, round the clock. It’s an expensive business, says Stig, so they have to make maximum use of the ship time by working to a busy schedule, sleeping in shifts in between. Well, at least we have enough bunks, so we don’t have to economise by sharing those.

Cruise leader Stig Falk Petersen in the instruments room of the Helmer Hanssen

Cruise leader Stig Falk Petersen in the instruments room of the Helmer Hanssen

Nocturnal goings-on

If I hadn’t done my homework, there were times during the evening briefing by Stig and his colleague Paul Renault, when  I might have been tempted to call for an interpreter , with talk of pelagic trawls, the hyper-benthos,  grabs, diel vertical migration, epibenthic sleds and more of that ilk. Then comes the high-tech LOPC – a laser optical plankton counter, of course! In case you are not a marine biologist yourself, this is all about getting samples from different layers of water and the seabed to find out about the relatively unknown winter lifestyles and behavior of organisms living in the Arctic ocean.  (There was some discussion about supplies of ethanol and formaldehyde, which you must not run out of if you want to take some samples home as a souvenir). It seems amazing, but there is still very little known about marine life in the polar night, because the region was so remote and inaccessible, and because people assumed where there was no light, there would be no biological activity. Now our scientists have discovered (last year was a real “eye-opener”, says Stig) that there is all sorts of activity going on.

Marine looking at the stomach of a tiny fish. Stig looks on.

Marine looking at the stomach of a tiny fish. Stig looks on.

fish stomach 158

What did this 1.5 meter long cod have for dinner?

It does not surprise me personally that a lot of creatures have to feed all the year round. But what exactly do cod, for example eat? That’s what Marine Cusa wants to find out for her PhD. I met her in the lab, where she was dissecting fish. I had a look inside the stomach of a large specimen of Atlantic cod in the lab.

Not for the faint-hearted, so I won’t go into details.  There are even creatures up here who choose to reproduce in this dark season. Now presumably it’s not like with human beings, where there tends to be a rise in the birth-rate after major power cuts in some places. So why would sea creatures choose to have their young in the cold, dark, polar winter? Some of the experts here have some theories – but I’m going to save that for another day.



January 13, 2015 | 6:04 pm



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