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Geography in the News: Svalbard Global Seed Vault

By Neal Lineback and Mandy Lineback Gritzner, Geography in the NewsTM

Svalbard’s “Doomsday Seed Vault”

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, nicknamed the “Doomsday Seed Vault” by some, has opened its doors and is accepting seeds. The seed vault was created to preserve samples of seeds from around the world to protect the earth’s crop diversity. This is an enormously important initiative and is supported worldwide.

The seed vault is located north of the Arctic Circle on the island of Spitsbergen in the Arctic Ocean 621 miles (1,000 km) north of mainland Norway. Spitsbergen is part of the Svalbard archipelago, the northernmost part of the Kingdom of Norway. The nearest village to the seed vault is Longyearbyen, a community of only 2,075 residents. Because the islands of Svalbard lie so far north, they receive no sunlight for three months of the year and very low-angle sunlight for six more months.

Map by Geography in the News and Maps.com
Boundaries and names shown do not necessarily reflect the map policy of the National Geographic Society.

The site was chosen because it was geographically remote, geologically stable, and the permafrost surrounding it would act as natural refrigeration to keep the facility cool enough to preserve the seeds. The three-chamber vault, with each vault capable of storing 1.5 million seed samples, was built 390 feet (120 m) into the side of a mountain 426 feet (130 m.) above sea level.

While Norway is paying for and owns the actual seed vault facility, the internationally supported Global Crop Diversity Trust maintains the seed collection. The group insists, “Crop diversity is one of the most fundamentally important resources for human life on earth.” According to the group, crop diversity is the biological basis for all agriculture, absolutely necessary to grow the food required by the world’s people.

Only about 150 crops are cultivated on any considerable scale worldwide, however, each crop comes in an immense range of different forms. For instance, crops may vary in height, flower color, branching pattern, fruiting time, seed size or flavor. Crops may also vary in their response to cold, heat, moisture or tolerance of specific pests or diseases.

Within a crop, it is possible to find variation in almost every imaginable trait, including cooking and nutritional qualities and, of course, taste. And if a trait cannot be found within a domesticated crop itself, it can likely be found within the crop’s wild version. This incredible number of different traits can be combined in countless numbers of ways. For example, there are over 120,000 varieties of rice alone.

Crop diversity can result from different growing conditions or as a result of genetics. Traits passed genetically over the generations are particularly important as they determine a plant’s overall characteristics and future potential.

Plant breeders combine genes for different traits in desired combinations. In this way, the plant breeder can develop new crop varieties to meet specific conditions. For instance, a new variety might produce higher yields, be more disease resistant and have a longer shelf life than the varieties from which it was bred.  Many hybrid plants, however, are not able to produce new seeds that will satisfactorily germinate, requiring plant breeders to look to combinations of older varieties’ genetics each year for new seeds for planting.

Unfortunately, crop diversity is being lost. As farmers and plant breeders change the crops they grow to meet new needs, they often abandon the old varieties. As varieties are discarded, traits they contain that could prove valuable in the future are also lost. Beyond farmers’ fields, as land is cleared or becomes degraded, wild varieties of crops also face extinction.

Maintaining the world’s crop diversity is important for many reasons. Foremost is food security, especially for the world’s poorest people. Crop diversity helps ensure a stable and sustainable supply of sufficient quantities of food and also plays a major role in ensuring its quality.

The diversity of crops also can aid in environmental protection. For example, crop varieties that are pest and disease resistant help limit spraying of harmful pesticides, drought tolerant varieties conserve water, deeper rooting varieties stabilize soil and more vigorous varieties that can better compete with weeds reduce the need for herbicides.

Crop diversity is also important in the face of global climate change. Genetic diversity will be needed to breed crops that can withstand changes in temperature, water availability, wind strength and other extreme events.

Though many methods exist for conservation of crop diversity, one way is through the creation of seed banks. There, collections of seeds can be stored for long periods of time, from decades to even hundreds of years, under low temperature conditions in domestic deep-freezers or in large cold rooms.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is the ultimate seed bank. More than two billion seeds will be safeguarded in the vault in case of natural or man-made disaster. The permafrost and thick rock surrounding the vault will ensure that even without electricity the samples will remain frozen–and that means that the world’s crop diversity will hopefully be safe for eternity.

And that is Geography in the News.

Sources: GITN 930, “Doomsday Seed Vault,” Maps.com, Mar. 28, 2008; http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=87984353http://www.croptrust.org/main/ ; and http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/7264758.stm

Co-authors are Neal Lineback, Appalachian State University Professor Emeritus of Geography, and Geographer Mandy Lineback Gritzner. University News Director Jane Nicholson serves as technical editor. Geography in the NewsTM  is solely owned and operated by Neal Lineback for the purpose of providing geographic education to readers worldwide.

Comments

  1. Ima Ryma
    May 28, 2014, 4:31 am

    The spacecraft landed on a world,
    No longer having any life,
    Some global disaster unfurled,
    Total extinction signs were rife.
    But near the planet’s northern pole,
    Instrumentation did detect
    A mass of plant seeds in a hole,
    A life source that had not been wrecked
    By whatever forces occurred
    That left this world to barren bound.
    These seeds of plants were disinterred.
    No such animal vault was found.

    “Doomsday Seed Vault” – the plant rebirth
    To bring back life to planet Earth.

  2. Richard China
    Rome, Italy
    May 26, 2014, 8:35 am

    Great article. However, with an estimated 50,000 edible plant species in the world, the sheer numbers of species and varieties means that genebanks alone cannot safeguard crop diversity for future use. Protecting the world’s agricultural biodiversity resources in the places where it continues to evolve is both an outcome in itself and a crucial resource for the future. Unfortunately, the diversity of local crops and their wild relatives is being lost at an alarming pace as a result of changing markets, farming practices, environmental degradation and many other factors. Often they are being lost before they are completely documented and studied leading to their name ‘neglected and underutilized species’. Understanding the status of the diversity of local crops and their wild relatives on farms and in wild areas and how they are used and managed by men and women is a priority research task for Bioversity International http://www.bioversityinternational.org/ in collaboration with other partners, in order for these resources to be effectively and efficiently valued, used and conserved. Our research will help ensure that these key resources remain available for smallholder farmers and breeders both now and in the future.