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HUMAN INTEREST STORIES


Architectural Plan Revealed of Doomsday Arctic Seed Vault

“Noah’s Ark” for Seeds Designed to Outlast Major
Rise in Sea Level and Warming of Permafrost

OSLO, NORWAY (9 February 2007)—The Norwegian government has revealed the architectural design for the Svalbard International Seed Vault, to be carved deep into frozen rock on an island not far from the North Pole. The entrance to the “fail-safe” seed vault will “gleam like a gem in the midnight sun,” signaling a priceless treasure within: seed samples of nearly every food crop of every country. The vault is designed to protect the agricultural heritage of humankind—the seeds essential to agriculture of every nation.

 “This design takes us one step closer to guaranteeing the safety of the world’s most important natural resource,” said Dr. Cary Fowler, Executive Director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which will co-fund the vault’s operations and pay for the preparation and transport of seeds from all developing nations to the Arctic island of Svalbard. “Every day that passes we lose crop biodiversity. We must conserve the seeds that will allow agriculture to adapt to challenges such as climate change and crop disease. This design is as awesome physically as it is attractive aesthetically, and both are fitting tributes to the importance of the biological treasure to be stored there.”

Artist concept of vault design
(Drawing courtesy of The Global Crop Diversity Trust 2006 / Statsbygg)

Construction is slated to begin in March 2007 and to be completed in September 2007. The vault will officially open in late winter 2008.

"By investing in a global permafrost safety facility for seeds, the Norwegian Government hopes to contribute to combating the loss of biological diversity, to reduce our vulnerability to climatic changes, and to enhance our ability to secure future food production,” said Mr. Terje Riis-Johansen, Minister of Agriculture and Food, Norway.

 The site was chosen, in part, because the ground is perpetually frozen, providing natural back-up refrigeration that would preserve the seeds should electricity fail. Yet, even here, project architects had to consider how to offset the potential impacts of climate change.

 The design will accommodate even worst-case scenarios of global warming in two main ways. For one, the vault will be located high above any possible rise in sea level caused by global warming: the vault will be located some 130 metres above current sea level, ensuring that it will not be flooded. This puts it well above a seven metre rise that would accompany the melting of Greenland’s ice sheet, or even a 61 metre rise that could accompany an unlikely total meltdown of Antarctica.

 Secondly, scientists determined the impact of rising air temperatures on the permafrost, which is normally between -4°C and -6°C (24.8°F and 21.2°F). They found that the permafrost would warm much more slowly than the air. In addition, the deeper into the mountain, the colder it will remain. Therefore, the vault will be located an extraordinary 120 metres into the rock, ensuring that rising external air temperatures will have no influence on the surrounding permafrost.

 “Even climate change over the next 200 years will not significantly affect the permafrost temperature,” says project manager Magnus Bredeli Tveiten, with Statsbygg, the Norwegian government’s Directorate of Public Construction and Property.

To accomplish this, the 120-metre entry tunnel will penetrate through the permafrost, opening to two large chambers capable of holding three million seed samples. The tunnel and vaults will be excavated by means of well-known boring and blasting techniques, with the rock walls sprayed with concrete.

 In contrast to this utilitarian interior, “the exterior structure shoots out of the mountainside,” Tveiten said. The entrance portal will be a narrow triangular structure of cement and metal, illuminated with artwork which changes according to the special lighting conditions of the Arctic. In the summer months, the entrance “will gleam like a gem in the midnight sun,” Tveiten says. Throughout the dark winter, when the sun never rises, it will glow with gently changing lights.

The design also reflects of the project’s approach to security.

 “We decided early on that there is no point in trying to hide this facility from the public,” Tveiten said. “Instead we will rely on its presence being well-known in the local community, so if the public sees something suspicious, they will react to it.”

 Other security measures include several sets of reinforced doors between the entrance and the chambers, the absence of windows, and a video monitoring system.

 Riis-Johansen emphasized the vault’s importance to the world community. “From a global perspective the emphasis is on assisting developing countries by offering a safe haven for their valuable biological material. I also hope that the interest that is shown in the Svalbard Arctic Seed Vault will create increased awareness for the need for conservation and sustainable use of our genetic resources.”

 The Arctic seed vault is part of a comprehensive global strategy being implemented by the Global Crop Diversity Trust to protect collections of crop genetic diversity around the world.

For more information on the architectural design contact: Magnus Bredeli Tveiten, Project Manager, Statsbygg: + 47 22 95 42 22 (o) + 47 91 17 94 41 (m).

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The Global Crop Diversity Trust (www.croptrust.org)

The mission of the Trust is to ensure the conservation and availability of crop diversity for food security worldwide. Although crop diversity is fundamental to fighting hunger and to the very future of agriculture, funding is unreliable and diversity is being lost. The Trust is the only organization working worldwide to solve this problem. The Trust is finalizing an agreement with the Royal Ministry of Agriculture and Food of Norway and the Nordic Gene Bank to provide for the long-term funding, management and operation of the vault.


Simple Answers to Basic Questions

What is a gene bank?

It is a facility for maintaining crop diversity. Usually, this diversity is in the form of seeds, stored and conserved in a frozen state. Some gene banks use normal household freezers for this purpose. The ideal temperature is between -10 and -20C. Each different type is stored in its own container, such as a bottle, can, or a sealed aluminum foil package.

How many gene banks are there?

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN lists about 1400 collections, ranging in size from a single sample to the U.S. collection with 464,000 different samples. Major genebanks include those in China, Russia, Japan, India, S. Korea, Germany and Canada (in that order) as well as those operated by Centers of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

How many samples do gene banks currently house?

Approximately 6.5 million collectively. Some 1-2 million are estimated to be “distinct.” Once the Svalbard Global Seed Vault (SGSV) becomes fully operational, we would expect it to become the largest single collection in the world. It will have a capacity of 3 million samples, giving ample room to accommodate all existing diversity plus new variation as it arises in the future.

Who uses gene banks?

Plant breeders and researchers are the major users of gene banks. The diversity stored in gene banks is the raw material for plant breeding and for a great deal of basic biological research. Several hundred thousand samples are distributed annually for such purposes.

Is it really necessary to conserve so many different crop varieties?

Different types have different characteristics, not all of which are visible to the eye – genetic traits that provide disease resistance, adaptability to various soils and climates, different tastes and nutritional qualities. If we ever need to use the potentially unique and sometimes hidden traits found in a particular variety, then we must conserve the variety - for as long as we want that option. So, the simple answer is “Yes!”.

What are the threats to gene banks and their collections?

The biggest threat probably comes from lack of secure funding. Poor management can also be a major problem. In addition, gene banks are subject to natural disasters, wars and civil strife, accidents, etc. SGSV provides insurance against all of these as well as larger and more catastrophic events.

How many varieties have been lost?

It is impossible to know, since there is no way of ascertaining how many different types have existed in the past. But, surely, much diversity has already been lost. Of the 7100 named varieties of apples grown in the U.S. in the 1800s, more than 6800 no longer exist. Extinction is forever. Different varieties of wheat and potato can disappear as permanently as the dinosaurs.

What kinds of seed will be stored in Svalbard?

Initially at least, all types of seed of the different food crops. There are, for example, more than 100,000 different kinds of rice. We would hope that SGSV would have a package of seeds of each of these different types.

Will the Svalbard Global Seed Vault store GMOs?

GMOs only exist in a few crops, so for now, and for most crops the answer is “No.” The likelihood of their being present in the collections that will sent for storage to Svalbard ranges from zero to miniscule at most. However, some could eventually be stored there. Is it a problem? No matter whether you love, hate or have a neutral attitude towards GMOs, you have to consider that all seed will be stored in sealed aluminum packages, in boxes, behind locked doors, near the North Pole. If there is danger, it would be associated with their use in the environment and the food system, not with their existence in a frozen state in the Seed Vault.

How safe and secure will the seeds be in the Seed Vault?

They will be as safe as they can be. The Seed Vault will be the most secure conservation facility in the world by several orders of magnitude. The conditions for the long-term conservation of the seed will be the best possible.

Could the Seed Vault survive a direct hit from a nuclear bomb?

Perhaps not. But it will almost surely withstand just about any other danger.

How long can seeds live in a frozen state?

It varies with the crop. Some crops, such as peas, may only survive for 20-30 years. But other crops, such as sunflowers and some of the grains may survive for many decades or even hundreds of years. Eventually, all seeds will lose the ability to germinate – they’ll die. Before this happens, a few seeds are taken from the stored sample and planted. Fresh, new seed is then harvested and placed in storage. This way, the original variety can be perpetuated, forever.

What is the Global Crop Diversity Trust and how is it connected to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault?

The Trust is a unique organization with the sole international mandate to ensure the conservation of crop diversity in perpetuity. The Trust is assembling a fund, the income from which will be used to support the long-term conservation and availability of this diversity for the international community. The Trust expects to provide support for the ongoing operations of the SGSV, and to provide funding for the preparation and shipment of seeds from developing countries to the facility. Professor Cary Fowler, Executive Secretary of the Global Crop Diversity Trust headed the international committee that assessed the feasibility of establishing the Seed Vault.

The Trust believes that the facility in Svalbard will provide a global safety net for agriculture ensuring that even if a catastrophe strikes a particular gene bank, or many gene banks, our irreplaceable heritage of crop diversity will not be lost for future generations.

For More Information About

The importance of conserving crop diversity / the challenges / the crops / the institutions involved / initiatives to ensure conservation / The Global Crop Diversity Trust

www.croptrust.org