Box 52 Gene bank for a warming world

In February of 2008, the Norwegian Government officially opened an international seed depository near the town of Longyearbyen on Spitsbergen Island, in the Svalbard archipelago. The facility will provide secure longterm cold storage for preserving plant resources. Once completed, the Svalbard depository could maintain up to 4.5 million different seed varieties: ideally, samples of every variety of almost every important food crop in the world.

The vast collection is intended as insurance against disaster so food production can be restarted anywhere should it be threatened by a regional or global catastrophe. When the depository was originally conceived in the early 1980s, the perceived threats came from nuclear war and geopolitical uncertainty. When the idea resurfaced in 2002, following the adoption by the UN of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, concerns about genetic resource loss from climate change brought new urgency and motivation to the concept.

The Svalbard facility will depend on seeds acquired according to strict protocols from sources around the world. If dried and packaged with the proper moisture content and stored at the right temperature, seeds from most major food crops will remain viable for hundreds to thousands of years. The seed collection will be maintained at optimal conditions for their longterm storage, maintained at a temperature of -18°C through the use of the naturally cold temperatures deep within Spitsbergen's permafrost and an artificial cooling system. The vault has been excavated out of sandstone—120 metres inside a mountain and lined with a metre of reinforced concrete. The facility is among the most energy-efficient and reliable structures in the world, with low operating costs and virtually no maintenance.

While no location can possibly provide 100 per cent insurance against the threat of natural and human dangers, Svalbard offers a level of protection that is difficult to match. At 78 degrees latitude—roughly 1,000 kilometres north of the northernmost tip of continental Norway—the location is suitably cold and isolated. The absence of volcanic or significant seismic activity in the region and the site's elevation above projected potential sea-level rise also contribute to the ideal longterm storage conditions.

As well, the area offers excellent infrastructure including a dependable power supply and a nearby airport. Depositors retain ultimate ownership of the materials held in storage. However, the facility is owned by the Government of Norway and will be managed by the Nordic Gene Bank, which has been conserving seeds since 1984 in a facility located within an abandoned coal mine in Sweden.

Sources: Fowler 2007, Skovmand 2007, UNEP 2008

Figure 5.1: Decision framework for assessing possible species translocation

Figure 5.1: Decision framework for assessing possible species translocation

Assessing the feasibility of whether or not to attempt the movement of a species to prevent its extinction or ecosystem collapse.
The Basic Survival Guide

The Basic Survival Guide

Disasters: Why No ones Really 100 Safe. This is common knowledgethat disaster is everywhere. Its in the streets, its inside your campuses, and it can even be found inside your home. The question is not whether we are safe because no one is really THAT secure anymore but whether we can do something to lessen the odds of ever becoming a victim.

Get My Free Ebook


Post a comment