Whit Gibbons

Whit Gibbons

The email from biology professor Trip Lamb said, “I’m back from a cruise around an archipelago called Svalbard to see reindeer, walrus, and polar bears. There I was attacked, sustaining several blows to the head, but am healing, with prospects of a full recovery.” I opened up the attached photograph to see what a survivor of a walrus or polar bear attack looked like. Instead, the photo Trip had taken was of the assault in progress. An Arctic tern was dive-bombing Trip’s head. Maybe the bird was being territorial in a nesting colony. Or maybe it was simply aggravated after its 12,000-mile journey from Antarctica to the Arctic. Arctic terns annually migrate farther than any other animal.

To me the most notable ecological aspect of Trip’s trip halfway into the Arctic Circle to the cluster of Norwegian islands was his getting to see the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, though he only got to see the entrance and that was from a distance. The public is not allowed in the facility itself. The GSV is located about 650 miles from the North Pole on the outskirts of Longyearbyen, which has the distinction of being Svalbard’s port and the world’s northernmost year-round human settlement. 

Located in one of the coldest, most isolated, barely habitable places on Earth, the GSV is a one-of-a-kind facility. According to Cary Fowler, GSV founder, its purpose “is to conserve crop diversity” because “it's the biological foundation of agriculture … the raw material … for plant breeding for the future.” The site was selected as an ideal environment for perpetual seed storage. GSV is not the first place in the world to store seeds to maintain genetic diversity of various crops. Hundreds of seed banks have been established in regional facilities in various countries, including India, Peru, England, Russia and, in the United States at the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins, Colo. But GSV has become the epicenter of the effort to preserve the genetic diversity wrapped up in all seeds.

All of the world’s major seed banks contribute samples to GSV, which reciprocates through exchanges from its own stores for local research projects. Almost a million samples of different crop and other plant varieties are stored in the facility, and the number grows annually. The genetic variability of some seed crops is astounding. According to Fowler, more than 150,000 kinds of wheat and 150,000 kinds of rice are stored in the vault at Svalbard.

No personnel have offices or remain permanently inside the building. Proper handling of incoming samples, including the necessary bookkeeping, is critical and requires a major effort. Having a diverse genetic storehouse available could be invaluable for meeting the shifting needs of agriculture in a world where regional climates are changing. Fowler says, “We want our crops to be productive in the future … we want them adapted to new climates or to whatever pest or disease is out there … we need to conserve that diversity.”

Other cool facts about the GSV: The enormous facility, tunneled almost 500 feet into the side of mountain, was approved for funding by the Norwegian government without the political fuss most countries are accustomed to. The GSV can accommodate 2.25 billion seeds, typically in packets of 500 seeds each. The year-round natural temperature inside is around freezing. Additional cooling by compressors lowers the seed vault areas to 0 degrees Fahrenheit. All the seeds in this underground icebox should survive at least 50 to 75 years. Some seeds are expected to survive up to 20,000 years.

Not yet 10 years old, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault promises to be viewed in the future as a visionary project vital to certain agricultural efforts. Having the world’s genetic traits from all continents encapsulated for safekeeping in a part of the world protected by polar bears and Arctic terns is a remarkable accomplishment.

​Whit Gibbons is an ecologist and environmental educator with the University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory. Send environmental questions to ecoviews@gmail.com.