The Svalbard Global Seed Vault was created as a safe-guard for humanity. Often dubbed the ‘doomsday’ vault, the facility was constructed deep in the ice of the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, as a last chance for our survival in the event of apocalypse – an indestructible vault that would protect the seeds of plants around the globe, so that one day, we could re-grow and start again. The building looks like a climactic discovery in an end-of-days film; one can easily imagine our group of heroes trekking across the ice, finally to find the futuristic-looking metal structure rising out of the snow. The tower-like entrance to the vault is emblazoned with highly reflected shards of stainless steel, mirrors and prisms, creating a reflective, multi-directional surface as an art-piece and a beacon to those seeking out the point of hope. The installation, by Norwegian artist Dyveke Sanne and titled Perpetual Repercussion, reflects polar light in the summer months and is illuminated by 200 fibre-optic cables in the winter, making sure that the vault is always visible to those seeking it.
As reassuring an idea as it is a dramatic design, the Svalbard Seed Vault has stood guard of humanity’s future since 2008. However, the supposedly stalwart building suffered something in 2017 that was never supposed to happen – a breech. In May this year, unexpectedly high temperatures in the Arctic following an extremely hot year led to melting as well as heavy rains. The uncharacteristic onslaught flooded the entrance of Svalbard’s tunnel – water that then froze in place, creating a glacier-like obstacle. Fortunately, water did not reach the vault itself, and all seeds stored were kept at their desired safe temperature of -18C.
The breach took the Nordic government, who commissioned and own the vault, by surprise. The event highlighted a weakness in the vault’s design if faced with extreme weather again in the future – an event that seems increasingly likely. The vault, which is meant to be able to maintain itself without human input, was watched around the clock until conditions returned to safe levels, and the team have been working tirelessly on fresh solutions to truly protect the structure against any environmental outcome.
Fortunately, the incident left no lasting damage and served as a crucial warning for the vault’s designers – especially as the number of natural disasters and extreme weather events happening globally has quadrupled since 1970. It seems that their work in response to this has already restored people’s faith in the structure, and has turned minds to thinking about the weather’s effects not only on the building itself, but the crops that it may one day yield. On World Food Day, October 16th, the Crop Trust delivered a precious cargo of 4,690 samples to Svalbard, including an endangered yet extremely wind-resistant plant known as the Bermuda bean. Currently on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) watch list, the Bermuda bean has evolved a vigorous root system that makes it more resistant to intense winds, such as those experienced in recent hurricanes around the globe. It is thought that plant breeders could use the traits of this bean to develop more wind-resistant crops, thus protecting them against a future of extreme weather events such as the ones we are seeing associated with increasing climate change.
Amazingly, this bean is not only being protected in case humanity needs to fight for a come-back – the bean itself is back from the dead! Whilst almost extinct in Bermuda, CIAT have successfully multiplied the seed (going from just 15 seeds to over 6,000), so that the species is conserved and available for future breeding and research. The samples were deposited at Svalbard by the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Colombia, one of 11 such gene banks supported by the Crop Trust. The Bermuda bean was originally collected by the Millennium Seed Bank at Kew Botanical Gardens and its partners.
The Crop Trust describes itself as the only international organisation devoted solely to ensuring the conservation and availability of crop diversity worldwide. As well as supporting the Svalbard Vault, the Crop Trust has worked with over 100 institutions in more than 80 countries to gather and protect crop samples. This includes a system of international gene banks, with which they aim to build a global network of availability and conservation of all major food crops. They are one of the three operators of Svalbard itself, working as a three-way cooperative with the Norwegian Government and the Nordic Genetic Resource Centre (NordGen). Other organisations depositing samples at Svalbard include ICRISAT (India), CIAT (Colombia) and CIP (Peru). With their latest deposit, the Svalbard Vault now holds 891,151 crop samples from nearly every country around the world.