Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Climate Change: the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry

Permafrost and thick rock ensure that the seed samples will remain frozen even without power. The Vault is the ultimate insurance policy for the world’s food supply, offering options for future generations to overcome the challenges of climate change and population growth. It will secure, for centuries, millions of seeds representing every important crop variety available in the world today. It is the final back up.  [The Global Crop Diversity Trust, Svalbard Global Seed Vault, accessed 19 May 2016]

Svalbard Global Seed Vault entrance

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault (SGSV) is now in its ninth year of operation.

The Guardian, 19 May 2016:

It was designed as an impregnable deep-freeze to protect the world’s most precious seeds from any global disaster and ensure humanity’s food supply forever. But the Global Seed Vault, buried in a mountain deep inside the Arctic circle, has been breached after global warming produced extraordinary temperatures over the winter, sending meltwater gushing into the entrance tunnel.

The vault is on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen and contains almost a million packets of seeds, each a variety of an important food crop. When it was opened in 2008, the deep permafrost through which the vault was sunk was expected to provide “failsafe” protection against “the challenge of natural or man-made disasters”.

But soaring temperatures in the Arctic at the end of the world’s hottest ever recorded year led to melting and heavy rain, when light snow should have been falling. “It was not in our plans to think that the permafrost would not be there and that it would experience extreme weather like that,” said Hege Njaa Aschim, from the Norwegian government, which owns the vault…..

“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,” she told the Guardian. Fortunately, the meltwater did not reach the vault itself, the ice has been hacked out, and the precious seeds remain safe for now at the required storage temperature of -18C.

But the breach has questioned the ability of the vault to survive as a lifeline for humanity if catastrophe strikes. “It was supposed to [operate] without the help of humans, but now we are watching the seed vault 24 hours a day,” Aschim said. “We must see what we can do to minimise all the risks and make sure the seed bank can take care of itself.”

The Nordic Genetic Resources Center (NordGen) is responsible for the daily management and operations of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault and the 32 Australian genebanks containing over 1.8 million seeds which are held in this vault along with the seeds of over 4,000 plant species banked by other countries.

This is not the first time this global seed vault has had problems. In 2011 North Coast Voices noted that financial and operational problems were placing the long-tern viability of the vault at risk, including technical problems in 2010 to 2011 concerning construction and temperature control, as well as falling behind on scheduled routine tests for the seed collections and required regeneration to maintain the genebank collection of living seed samples.

Hopefully now that hubris has been publicly flattened by this flooding, the NorGen board of directors will go back to the contingency drawing board and fully re-work risk. After all NordGen noted that the permafrost was not fully re-establishing itself as early as 2008 - the year this vault was officially opened.

Annual Progress Reports

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