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Note: This article is from Conservation Magazine, the precursor to Anthropocene Magazine. The full 14-year Conservation Magazine archive is now available here.

Safe-Deposit Box

March 9, 2012

Travels to the seed vault on top of the world

By Carl Safina

How would a biblical literalist count seven days and seven nights here? One day in Svalbard lasts four months, and the sun never sets; one night lasts four months, and the sun never rises. The other four months consist mainly of either long days with short nights or long nights with short days. Here the equinoxes—the two days annually with 12 hours each of daylight and darkness—really mean something. But what does “a day” mean here, and how many are there in a year?

The islands collectively called Svalbard rise from the sea so far north they seem to lie beyond human thought. Their latitude is nearly 80º north, far beyond the Arctic Circle. Almost anywhere else in the world this far north, you’d be in the Arctic Ocean. Mainland Norway’s northernmost tip is about 500 miles south of us.

Many people have never heard of these islands; few would want to come here. For those who have and who do, it’s neither easy nor hospitable. The annual average temperature is 25º Fahrenheit (–4º C); the record low, –51º Fahrenheit (–46.3º C).  Some 60 percent of the land is covered by glaciers and ice sheets; 27 percent is simply bare; and less than 10 percent is vegetated. The nearest tree—or even shrub—is hundreds of miles behind us, on the European continent. Although the Inuit people elsewhere learned to master sea ice and long crossings of the Arctic Ocean, no aboriginal people ever got this far.

But now I’ve come to the spare and elemental top of the world, into the music of vast silences and the heave and subsidence of a cold, dark sea. I hope to see creatures living to a different rhythm, a rhythm not of our time—though that pace, too, is changing. Partly, I came to this place beyond humanity to see where we’re all headed.

Though it’s mid-July, snow flurries greet my arrival. The bubble of civilization extends to here, but barely. The 2,000 residents live off coal mining. The main town, Longyearbyen, is named after the person who developed the mining, although with those four months of uninterrupted night and temperatures dozens of degrees below zero, it must seem a “long year” indeed. The people here rely entirely on food imported from lands a thousand or more miles south. But that’s not the only connection between local coal and distant places. Coal combustion is helping change the climate.

Cary Fowler, a curly-haired man, has come to this land without farming to save the future of agriculture. “It’s a foregone conclusion that climate change will affect agriculture,” Fowler is telling me. “The open question is: Will agriculture adapt?”

Adapting a plant variety to a new region—or a new climate—isn’t easy or quick. Temperature limits the natural ranges of many species of plants and animals. To understand how profound this limitation is, think of it this way: at the edges of a species range, each individual and each generation have the opportunity to expand just beyond the confines of their species’ normal range. The rewards would certainly be great: more territory, less competition, more market share. Yet many species apparently cannot adapt to temperature regimes and climate conditions different from those to which they’ve already adapted. At the very least, such adaptation is not simple or certain. Just ask any dinosaur.

Through what looks a bit like a concrete-reinforced cellar door in a frozen mountain, we enter a nearly 400-foot-long tunnel dug through solid rock. The tunnel connects a series of cavernous storage rooms maintained at 0º Fahrenheit (–18º C), and the whole space resembles a big multichambered cave. This is the Doomsday Vault, the world’s cold-storage site for agriculture—a safe-deposit box for seeds. More formally, it’s called the Global Seed Vault, established in 2008 by the Global Crop Diversity Trust; its location was chosen for its insulation from conflict, floods, and fires. And the area deep beneath this mountain is expected to stay frozen for a long time, even under projected warming. Warming is why we’re in so cold a place.

“Crop diversity is the biological foundation of our future agriculture,” Fowler asserts.

Agriculture is, and is not, very diversified. Out of about 300,000 named plant species, we get 90 percent of our food from 103 species—and we get 70 percent from just three: wheat, corn, and rice. But between 200,000 and 400,000 varieties of rice exist in the world. Some grow on land, some under several feet of water. The roughly 60,000 kinds of beans include some that resist heat, others that resist bugs.

Collecting the world’s seeds is a new work in progress. The vault currently holds 300,000 samples, each with about 500 seeds, thus 150 million seeds. It has sufficient capacity to store 4.5 million samples—2.25 billion seeds. The seeds themselves—nondescript and methodically bagged, labeled, and racked—are a visual anticlimax. They’re the least dramatic thing about the whole enterprise.

“Twenty years from now,” Fowler says, “the climate in some countries won’t be anything like it is now.” He shows me a graph that plots growing-season temperatures in India for the past century and temperatures projected by the end of this century. During the growing season, the experienced and projected temperatures do not overlap. It won’t just be on the warmer side of average; there’ll be an entirely new range of temperatures. Concludes Fowler: “Agriculture has never seen the kind of climate that is coming.”

That throws food forecasts into question. Economists project a one to two percent increase in corn production in South Africa; “That’s because,” Fowler explains, “they simply assume the increasing yields of the past will continue. They’re looking in the rearview mirror.” Corn needs rain. Forecasts for coming years predict worsening African droughts. And if a cornstalk’s silk dries out, you get no corn.

“If you look ahead, and factor in climate,” Fowler says, “you’d predict a 30 percent decline in corn in South Africa. That’s total yield, not per person.” You’d have to take the 30 percent–lower total yield and divide that by the number of people expected due to population growth to really see how much less food per person is likely.

Corn’s not the only concern. About half the world’s population eats a bowl of rice every day. Rice pollination success is nearly 100 percent at roughly 95º Fahrenheit (35º C). Rather stunningly, for every added one-degree Celsius rise in nighttime temperature, rice yields drop ten percent. At night temperatures of about 105 degrees Fahrenheit (40º C), pollination fails almost entirely. Similarly, for each degree Celsius rise in temperature, corn and wheat yields decline about five percent. The National Academy of Sciences says, “Temperature increases due to global warming will make it increasingly difficult to feed Earth’s growing population.”

“Is agriculture ready?” Fowler asks. “No. We’ve actually been losing seed diversity. It’s as if, as we’re facing a growing threat—we’re dismantling our defenses.”

“And where,” Fowler continues, “will farmers get the drought- and heat- tolerant crop varieties they’ll need? Not from inside their own countries; they’ll have to get them from somewhere else.” Somewhere else is this vault. Water requirements, light sensitivity, disease, and insect resistance—all must be tuned, then fine-tuned. Even with genetic engineering, it takes about seven years to develop a new crop variety. This vault preserves those tuneable traits from around the globe. Coded into seeds, these traits can be shipped anywhere to speed development of new varieties.

This vault is the sole global response to the crises of shrinking crop varieties in a world with a changing climate. “We will need this seed bank,” Fowler opines, “as long as we will need agriculture. This,” he adds, waving at the spaces waiting to be filled with seed samples, “is a common heritage of humanity, a basic public good. Quite simply,” he concludes, “there is no possibility of feeding ourselves without it.”

Critical as the vault is, it will store only agricultural seeds, not wild-plant types. Not domestic-animal breeds. And not, of course, the diversity of wild animals. To do the job right, Noah would need a bigger boat. ❧

From: The View from Lazy Point: A Natural Year in an Unnatural World by Carl Safina. Henry Holt & Company, 2011.

Carl Safina is founding president of the Blue Ocean Institute and a visiting professor at Stony Brook University, where he co-chairs the Center for Communicating Science. His books have won him a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Lannan Literary Award, the John Burroughs Medal, and a MacArthur Fellowship. He has helped lead campaigns to ban high-seas driftnets; rewrite U.S. fisheries law; and conserve tunas, sharks, turtles, albatrosses and other animals. He hosts the upcoming Saving the Ocean on PBS television. He lives on Long Island, New York.

Photo ©Svalbard Global Seed Vault/Mari Tefre

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