AuthorTopic: Svalbard Global Seed Vault 1  (Read 912 times)

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Svalbard Global Seed Vault 1
« on: July 24, 2017, 06:31:32 AM »


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Published on From Filmers to Farmers on July 21st, 2017






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Not the "Doomsday Seed Vault" But Rather the "Vault of Doom" (part 1/3)


 





Well, at least it was made sure that the Svalbard Global Seed Vault looks real pretty

(photo courtesy of Johann Fromont)



The sheer sensationalism of doom-laden Internet headlines doled out by journalists raised on Hollywood disaster movies (and now clickbait) recently reared their ugly head again, this time in regards to the venerated Svalbard Global Seed Vault. I'm no fan of what some have misleadingly nicknamed the "Doomsday Seed Vault", but with journalists narrowly clamouring on about some recent hiccoughs that the Vault experienced does the greater catastrophe that the Vault represents get obfuscated. Those recent hiccoughs are certainly nothing to scoff at (as I'll explain), but by missing out on the greater implications they imply does the fundamental problems of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault get missed, those being that not only is the Vault not a "Doomsday Seed Vault" but, and as I'll explain in part 2, that it transforms seed saving into something akin to the art of taxidermy.



To backtrack a bit, in 2003 Cary Fowler – scientist, conservationist, biodiversity activist, and co-author with Pat Mooney of the excellent 1990 book Shattering: Food, Politics, and the Loss of Genetic Diversity – had the idea of creating a storage facility that would provide a backup for the seeds currently stored in the world's 1,700 genebanks (and then some). While saving and preserving seeds is currently something that the "average" person tragically generally pays little to no mind to, if there's one thing more crucial and fundamental to our civilization than fossil fuels then that something would be seed saving, a practice which preceded industrial civilization by about 9,800 years or so. That being so, making backups of seeds, and even backups of backups of seeds, might very well be the most wise thing us humans cultivating away on this planet can do.



Unless, that is, one wants to be rather monolithic – perhaps even megalomaniacal – about it all.



While the Vault's construction tab of US$9 million was entirely covered by the Norwegian government (which in turn owns the Svalbard Global Seed Vault), storage of seeds in the vault is entirely free to users thanks to those costs being covered by the Norwegian government as well as an organization called the Global Crop Diversity Trust. The moniker "Doomsday Seed Vault" is an undeserved misnomer though, because as described on the Global Crop Diversity Trust's website, "The purpose of the Vault is to store duplicates (backups) of seed samples from the world’s crop collections". In other words, the purpose of the Vault is emphatically not to be a knight in shining armour that rescues humanity from some Hollywood-esque apocalypse, which in one sense renders the "Doomsday Seed Vault" nickname somewhat verbose.



To facilitate its publicly-stated mission, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is located on the remote Norwegian island of Svalbard, and while the Vault itself is located 130 metres above sea level so as to be out of harm's way if even all of the world's icecaps melted, it's also tunnelled more than 100 metres into the side of a mountain, a mountain far from any active fault lines and whose surrounding permafrost can keep the seeds perpetually chilled. The idea, as put by Åsmund Asdal of the Nordic Genetic Resource Centre, is that "This is supposed to last for eternity".



That is, that's the idea.





So peaceful, so tranquil (photo by Mari Tefre / Svalbard Globale frøhvelv)


Because when what I presume was some of the world's greatest minds got together to see to it that the seeds of some of the world's most important food crops were saved for posterity, the one calamity that the designers apparently failed to take into account is so absurd that I don't think there's even a witty remark witty enough to describe it. So I'll just go ahead and say it: The one calamity that the designers of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault didn't take into account was… climate change?



Really?



From what I can tell I don't think I'm too far off the mark here. Because to backtrack again, here's what recently happened: First of all, and according to NASA and NOAA, the most recent year (in this case 2016) was once again the warmest on record. Secondly, and according to Ketil Isaksen of Norway's Meteorological Institute, "The Arctic and especially Svalbard warms up faster than the rest of the world" (due to what is known as polar amplification). Thirdly, while permafrost of course has an air of permanence to it, it can nonetheless be damaged and made vulnerable when dug into – like when you dig a 100 metre tunnel into it. Combine those three together and what you get is a lot of white stuff melting. To be a bit more specific, and as the New York Times put it just last week,




[W]ater – torrents of it, rush[ed] into the entrance tunnel of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault… [B]ecause the water had short-circuited the electrical system, the electric pumps on site were useless… Local firefighters helped pump out the tunnel until the temperature dropped and the water froze. Townspeople from the village at the mountain's base then brought their own shovels and axes and broke apart the ice sheet by hand.




How is it possible, you might ask, that such an event could happen to the facility meant to "store duplicates (backups) of seed samples from the world’s crop collections"? Well, as stated by Hege Njaa Aschim of the Norwegian government, it turns out that




It was not in our plans to think that the permafrost would not be there and that it would experience extreme weather like that.




Come again? "Extreme weather" – climate change – didn't fit into the "plans" that the Svalbard Global Seed Vault designers and caretakers had in mind for how the permafrost was supposed to behave (as other statements by the Norwegian government have reiterated)?




A lot of water went into the start of the tunnel and then it froze to ice, so it was like a glacier when you went in.




Uhh… seriously?





Hey, where'd all the white stuff go? (photo by Ronald Woan)


So although the ice was subsequently "hacked out", this is only the beginning of the absurdity entailed in this story. Because as Aschim also stated – almost giving one the impression that these seed savers of seed savers are holding out for positions in the Donald Trump administration – "The question is whether this is just happening now, or will it escalate?"



Come again and again? The owners of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault are questioning whether or not climate change is going to "escalate"? For real?



Putting aside this absurdity beyond all absurdities, the fact remains that none of the seeds were actually lost in the "flood", a "flood" that supposedly wasn't really a flood. Because as Fowler put it himself,




Flooding is probably not quite the right word to use in this case. In my experience, there's been water intrusion at the front of the tunnel every single year.




Damage control? You can decide for yourself. Because as Fowler also stated,




The tunnel was never meant to be water tight at the front, because we didn’t think we would need that. What happens is, in the summer the permafrost melts, and some water comes in, and when it comes in, it freezes. It doesn't typically go very far.




So okay. Is that to say the designers of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault didn't actually mind too much water making its way in through the front door and freezing on the inside, or that they – Fowler included – didn't really anticipate that climate change might have an effect on all that cold white stuff surrounding the Vault? Whichever it actually is, US$1.6 million has now been earmarked for investigations on how to improve the access tunnel (I'll get to that in part 2), the conclusions due in early-2018. In the meantime, US$4.4 million is being spent on constructing such things as a waterproof wall and drainage ditches.



Anyhow, Fowler also stated that




If there was a worst case scenario where there was so much water, or the pumping systems failed, that it made its way uphill to the seed vault, then it would encounter minus 18 [degrees celsius] and freeze again. Then there’s another barrier [the ice] for entry into the seed vault.




In other words, Fowler appears to be stating that not only is he the open-minded kind of guy that likes to go on blind dates, but that he likes to be set up with those who have a penchant for S&M and who go by the name of Miss Murphy. There are of course a lot of Miss Murphys out there who are itching to lay down their unique interpretation of the Law, one of those Laws possibly emanating from Greenland via what is known as glacial isostatic adjustment.



Turns out that the sheer weight of all that ice on neighbouring Greenland has pushed its landmass down by what might be a thousand feet or so, and since the land is "bouncing" back up – and at increasing speeds – due to the melting ice, this could result in "reactivate[d] faults, increase[d] seismic activity, and [increased] pressure on magma chambers that feed volcanoes". In fact, "of particular concern is the continental shelf around Greenland, where a massive melting of the ice sheet might trigger earthquakes strong enough to trigger underwater landslides which in turn could generate tsunamis". Just last month a tsunami did in fact strike the coast of Greenland due to what was believed to be a magnitude four earthquake, and as was stated by a Danish news agency, "for such an earthquake to hit Greenland was 'not normal'". And so while none of this is "normal", it also turns out that "The same process is affecting the islands of Iceland and Svalbard, which also have ice caps", and that "crustal uplift in Greenland, Iceland and Svalbard is accelerating".



Might such a climate change-induced glacial isostatic adjustment cum underwater landslide cum tsunami not only emanate from just the right spot off of Greenland's coast but also make its way through the inlet leading to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault? To make a guess, I'd say probably not. Nonetheless, Miss Murphy's chock-full of interesting tricks up her sleeve, and you never know what her wild imagination will come up with as she goes about laying down the Law with what should probably be known as:



The Vault of Doom!





The location of the scene in the upcoming movie where everybody is gathered around the monitor next to the Vault's doors that won't open, their mouths agape as they watch – thanks to the video feed provided by the Destructo-Cam© – all the seeds getting destroyed (photo by Ralph Lee Hopkins)


Offline Eddie

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Re: Svalbard Global Seed Vault 1
« Reply #1 on: July 24, 2017, 08:13:24 AM »
Prior planning prevents poor performance.

Great piece Allen. Maybe the elites need to rethink where to put their seeds. Maybe inside a really, really big refrigerator powered off-grid.
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Svalbard Global Seed Vault: Seed Saving-Cum-Taxidermy (part 2/3)
« Reply #2 on: July 31, 2017, 02:26:58 AM »


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Published on From Filmers to Farmers on July 26th, 2017






Discuss this article at the Environment Table inside the Diner


 





With a bit of ice on the floor depositers could almost ride the seeds right on in

(photo by Global Crop Diversity Trust)



As odd as it sounds, I can't help but think that it's so ridiculously easy to point fingers at the short-sightedness of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault that not only is it also all-too-easy to label it as the "Vault of Doom", but that this can lead one to miss out on the much more dire issue of what the Vault represents in the present.



If we look at the Vault's layout, it turns out that the access tunnel from its main door was designed and built to slope downwards, a rather questionable idea when you think about the effects that gravity tends to have on permafrost and snow when they get above 0℃. Why in the world was the Svalbard Global Seed Vault designed in such a way? As put by Hege Njaa Aschim of the Norwegian government (owner of the Vault),




The construction was planned like that because it was practical as a way to go inside…




In other words, the vault was designed with depositing seeds in mind, not withdrawing them. I'm venturing into the land of absurdity again, because if you know anything about seed saving then you know that it is in fact extremely beneficial to keep seeds stored in complete darkness, although it's also just as true that black holes can be a tad too dark.



Silliness aside, one of the two primary issues regarding the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is that of in-situ seed saving versus not simply ex-situ seed saving but extreme-sport ex-situ seed saving. In-situ seed saving is the practice of constantly growing seeds out every year or every few years, a practice which regenerates the seeds before they die out.



Ex-situ seed saving on the other hand is the process of storing away seeds for extended periods of time, done so in cold, dark conditions so that the seeds go dormant. This approach (sometimes getting rather hi-tech and more energy-intensive with things like stainless-steel liquid-nitrogen storage vats) enables the life span of the seeds to be theoretically extended to decades, possibly even centuries, which is much longer than the handful of years many seeds generally last for.



That all being so, one big problem with the ex-situ method is that the seeds are not only frozen in space but also frozen in time. Because by having their evolution – their continual adaptation – halted, there's the very real possibility that a packet of seeds brought out of their 100-year or so dormancy will lack the characteristics – the genetic capabilities – to fend off a blight or some other scourge that appeared during their "hibernation". As a result, the seeds could be left with virtually no in-built defence and therefore have virtually zero chance for survival.



Conversely, in-situ seed saving is the embodiment of adaptation to place. Try growing out a bunch of seeds from the same packet but in two different locations – locations which would inherently have varying conditions – and what you'll eventually get is a branching lineage whereby the seeds attain different characteristics. This is due to the unique adaptations that occur thanks to the seeds' opportunity to adapt to their locales, not to mention the characteristics that each generation of seeds get selected for by their stewards.



So while one might say that the seeds saved in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault are not only the epitome of ex-situ seed saving and the non-existence of adaptation (call it Globalized Seed Saving if you will), but one could also say that the Vault itself couldn't be a greater representation of the dismissal of place and adaptation. For as was explained by Arne Kristoffersen, a former Svalbard coal miner, most coal mines in the area weren't built like the Svalbard Global Seed Vault with their entrance tunnels sloping downwards, but with their entrance tunnels sloping upwards:




For me it is obvious to build an entrance tunnel upwards, so the water can run out. I am really surprised they made such a stupid construction.




Perhaps Kristoffersen has a flair for hyperbole to go along with what appears to be consternation for incompetence, for as he also put it,




[A]s it is today, the whole entrance will be filled up with water and this will freeze and it will be blocked after a few years, so it will not be possible to get into the seed vault. There will be a big iceberg in the tunnel.





Hyperbole aside, one might nonetheless think that the hard-earned knowledge and time-worn practices of the locals would have been given prime attention when designing and constructing the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. But don't forget: this is ex-situ seed saving, something in which conditions of the place are specifically dismissed as something that needn't be taken into account. For although Kristoffersen was in fact involved in an initial planning meeting for the vault, he unfortunately wasn't a part of the following development of the plans.



Downwards the tunnel goes!



In effect, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is not only the ex-situ saving of seeds, but the ex-situ saving of seeds in an ex-situ structure. Because while ex-situ seed saving inherently ignores changing conditions of climate and other variables, the designers behind the Svalbard Global Seed Vault are either huge fans of the brilliance of the eminent architect Frank Lloyd Wright, or, and as mentioned in part 1, astoundingly failed to take into consideration – or at least take very seriously – changing conditions due to climate change.



With all these mishaps and dismissals in mind, I think one seriously has to wonder about not only the efficacy of such extreme-sport ex-situ seed saving, but also the motivations behind this globalized approach to the saving of seeds. Because from what I've read there seems to be some rather surreptitious reasoning behind the supposed need for the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in the first place, one example coming from a recent statement made by the lead partnership coordinator for the Global Crop Diversity Trust, Brian Lainoff. In what I can't help but see as, at best, another attempt at damage control, Lainoff recently stated that




Something as mundane as a poorly functioning freezer can ruin an entire collection, and the loss of a crop variety is as irreversible as the extinction of a dinosaur, animal or any form of life.




Let's put aside the fact that it was discovered on December 16th of 2014 that an electrical connection in the Vault's refrigeration unit had rusted away, got covered in chunks of ice, shut down the cooling system, that there was no back-up, that a technician had to fly in from nearly 1,000 km away the next day, that the part needed – sourced from Italy – wouldn't arrive until after Christmas, and that a temporary fix only managed to be put in place by borrowing a part off a freezer from a nearby supermarket.



Because if you didn't notice, it looks to me like there's a bit of sleight-of-hand that Lainoff is attempting to pull off by trying to equate a loss in a genebank to the complete extinction of a crop variety. This is, however, not what inherently happens at all. While genebanks do preserve the genetic material of such things as wild seeds meticulously gathered from the wild, they also serve as a backup for the seeds actively used by farmers and gardeners. That is, genebanks aren't simply "collections" of seeds for geneticists to work with but, like the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, are backups themselves.



But if we take Lainoff at his surreptitious word, what might therefore be inferred is that seeds kept in genebanks are nothing but "collections", "collections" that if lost imply extinction. Moreover, since the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is a backup to hundreds of genebanks, this would imply that it is but a "collection" of "collections". Meanwhile, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault's approach to the possible loss of these "collections" (extinction) is not to engender the dispersion of those "collections" amongst actual users of seeds who would provide a decentralized method of preservation, or to even engender a stronger network of backups between genebanks, but to make a centralized "collection" of "collections". Since the ultimate result of "collections" is "ruination" (as can be inferred by Lainoff's fearmongering), one could infer then that the purpose and destiny of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is to become the greatest one-off extinction event of the past 10,000 years. Because are we to believe that of the 1,700+ genebanks out there the only one that can't be decimated is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault? Might it not be even safer to have Elon Musk store a backup to the backup to the backups on Mars?





Can't say Lainoff doesn't have all the talking points down (photo by Global Crop Diversity Trust)


Because yes, disasters of all sorts have decimated, and will continue to decimate, collections of seeds held at genebanks. An earthquake pulverized Nicaragua's national seed bank in 1971, a hurricane flattened Honduras' national seed bank in 1998, a typhoon flooded a Filipino seed bank in 2006, and during the US-led invasion in 2003 it was the looting of Iraq's museums that garnered all the media's attention but the country's national seed bank that got destroyed. However, and using the latter case as an example, the most important seeds had previously been duplicated by Iraqi scientists and were stored away for safekeeping way over in another seed bank in Aleppo, Syria.



This idea then of backing up seeds held in genebanks is by no means a novel idea unique to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Furthermore, to think that the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is safe from refrigeration problems (known to not be true), exempt from the ravages of climate change (also known to not be true), or impervious to the ravages of Miss Murphy (who's your ideal blind date?) is not only foolhardy, but megalomaniacal.



But lo and behold, if like me you thought Lainoff could get rather surreptitious, it appears to me that Fowler himself can get downright slimy. For as he stated himself two years ago,




It is out in the real world – that makes it vulnerable because you have typhoons, hurricanes, natural disasters and pests that come along. If you've got a crop, an heirloom variety, a traditional variety, somewhere in Africa, and you say, that's great, it's going to adapt to climate change – well, maybe not. If it doesn't have the right traits, your farmer is going to starve or go out of business long before that crop will naturally adapt through mutation.




Fowler's got a problem with… "the real world"?



Regardless, natural disasters certainly do happen. Moreover, it is absolutely correct that in-situ seed saving by no means inherently implies the adaptation of seeds to the vagaries of climate change. Nonetheless, how is it that the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is supposed to ameliorate any of this? If seeds out in "the real world" aren't able to "naturally adapt through mutation", then what chance do seeds frozen away in stasis – which have zero opportunity for adaptation of any sort – have in comparison? And even if some seeds did exist in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault that could assist that oh-so-unfortunate starving-and-on-their-way-to-bankruptcy African farmer, and that such seeds could even be identified, and quickly enough, how are said seeds supposed to help said African farmer when seeds in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault are explicitly only allowed to be withdrawn by their depositors (genebanks)? On top of that, there isn't just one starving-and-on-their-way-to-bankruptcy African farmer but dozens, hundreds, thousands of them. Are they all going to get seeds from supplies withdrawn from the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, sourced from a genebank which may very well be on a whole other continent?



In other words, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault provides no benefit or viable alternative to the condemnations that Fowler bestows upon in-situ seed saving, his words being more like framed arguments tossed forth in order to suit a particular point of view.



That being so, if it isn't necessarily seeds themselves and the stomachs that need them the most that Fowler and the Global Crop Diversity Trust are out to protect, then what exactly can the underlying motive of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault be?



We'll get to that in the final part of this series.




Offline Eddie

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Re: Svalbard Global Seed Vault 1
« Reply #3 on: July 31, 2017, 06:01:00 AM »
They've been glorifying that guy on public radio here. I heard a puff piece not days after your first article. Never a mention of the current problem set up there. Just how they saved seeds that would have been destroyed in Syria at some international seed bank there.
What makes the desert beautiful is that somewhere it hides a well.

 

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