This is The ChangeUnderground for the 24th of October 2022.
I’m your host, Jon Moore
Decarbonise the Air, Recarbonise the Soil!
Unfortunately the depressing news from last week continues. Back in episode 65, the ancient pre-covid days, I covered the Seedbank at Svalbard. There was an issue with rain in winter leading to flooding of the entrance foyer of the seedbank. All good at the time, the vaults themselves were sealed from the foyer and no damage occurred. But, and this is a big but, signs were evident.
From that episode:
The Arctic experienced a preposterously warm winter last season, and the permafrost, which has been thawing in recent years, suddenly began melting at an alarming rate. The region near the seed vault experienced heavy rain when it should have been snowing. The resulting breach at Svalbard is making experts question the “fail-safe” nature of the vault.
That’s taken from What happened to the “fail-safe” Svalbard seed vault designed to save us from crop failure in qz.com May 20 2017.
So imagine my surprise and disappointment when I stumbled across this on the IFLScience website: The “Doomsday Vault” Is In Serious Danger Due To Climate Change.
The seeds are kept at -18°C (-0.4°F) with minimum access to oxygen in order to delay aging as much as possible. One of the failsafes in the event electricity were to cease is the surrounding permafrost, the frozen soil common in such northern territories. However, a new report by the Norwegian Government shows that the Svalbard Islands are facing significant changes due to global warming.
By the last quarter of the century, the report expects air temperatures on the islands to increase by about 10°C (18°F ) if there’s only a minimum curbing of gas emissions and by about 7°C (13°F ) if there is a more significant cut of greenhouse gases. The increase in heat will lead to a thawing of the permafrost, which will turn the solid ground around the facility into mush, likely liberating more methane and carbon dioxide currently frozen in the soil. A few years ago, the thawing permafrost put the vault in jeopardy by flooding it.
This is somewhat concerning but unexpected. After all, global warming has been driving obvious, measurable climate changes for 50 odd years. It is the failure of imagination, maybe an inability to grasp the extent of the changes or a benign wishful thinking that humanity would take this seriously and the need to imagine a permafrost free arctic circle was unnecessary.
Whatever the reason, this facility was conceived in 2004 and opened on the 26th of February 2008. The much heralded COP 15 in Denmark was scheduled for the end of 2009. If you don’t remember, this was going to be the COP when the world woke up and binding agreements would be signed and peace, unicorns and rainbows would proliferate across the globe.
Our relatively new, 2 years into the job, Prime Minister had basically guaranteed a positive outcome only to find the agreement scuttled at the last moment. What he colourfully described as being “rat fucked” by the chinese. Not a particularly literal statement but it summed things up succinctly. In the 13 years since then we have seen what we have seen and lived through what we’ve lived through.
Svalbard is at risk. There are copies of the seeds held by Svalbard across the world and there’s a fair chance we won’t lose any but things happen. The Syrian seed bank was dispersed fairly quickly once that nation erupted in conflict. A note of hope in this matter is the nature of the people running these institutions. They seem to see their jobs and the seeds they have custody of as a higher calling.
I’ve mentioned Vavilov, Nikolai Vavilov, in the past. His claim to fame relates to his decision to track down as many seeds, cuttings, fruits et al as he could in the places where they were first domesticated. His reasoning being that the original species would have more variations and a starting point to begin again if a disease or pest wiped out or severely reduced the current varieties. He set up a facility in Leningrad, now known as St Petersburg, to store the collected seeds, cuttings and fruits. The memory of these things is fading with time but during WW2 Leningrad was subjected to a siege of 872 days. Food supplies were meagre. People died of starvation. Indeed, workers at the Leningrad seedbank were reported to have died of starvation surrounded by bags of wheat, barley, rice and rye. The seeds were valued more highly than they valued their own lives. Truly remarkable sacrifices that continue to benefit our species.
The risks taken to relocate the Syrian seedbank also required courage. These seed people are a remarkable mob. Holding the possible future of humanity in trust would have effects on the thinking.
Like armed conflict affecting Leningrad and Syria, we are in another battle to save the Svalbard project. We have time, the battle is within our systems of governance around the world. Built as a doomsday insurance policy, let’s take the necessary steps to ensure we don’t ever have to make a claim on that policy.
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The “Doomsday Vault” Is In Serious Danger Due To Climate Change
What happened to the “fail-safe” Svalbard seed vault designed to save us from crop failure