Sunday, February 10, 2013


Ominous, right?  Source.

The picture above is the entrance to the Svalbard facility.  Think about that for a moment.  It's got the name "Svalbard", and it's clearly located in the side of a frozen mountain.  Let's first discuss what it is not.  It's not the lair of a supervillian.  It's not a fortress of solitude for a superhero.  It's not a multi-billionaire's pet project known informally as "Fort Kick-Ass."  It's not the location of a secret doomsday machine (and even if it were, the whole point of a doomsday machine is lost if you keep it a secret).

No, it is none of the aforementioned things.  Let's take a look inside and see if that gives any clues:
Not terribly ominous, but nonetheless puzzling.  Source.

What is being stored [~130m] in the side of a Norwegian mountain?  Seeds!  Many, many hundreds of thousands of agriculture seeds.  I read about this a year or two ago, I've retained the details of what I read, but not most of the sources, unfortunately.  A great place to start is the TED talk given by Cary Fowler, if you'd like to learn more about it.

Now, why on Earth are we storing seeds here?  Well, you no doubt remember my post on genetic algorithms, but allow me the indulgence of briefly touching on some points here.  Life as we know it is ultimately the product of a grand genetic algorithm, different organisms with different genes competing and co-operating, with the "fittest" surviving to pass on their genes to the next generation.  Now, how does this grand system evaluate the fitness of different species, let alone individuals of a species?  Varieties of pressures exist, plant diversity is often determined by the availability of water and how cold or hot a specific locale gets.  Pressures like this can wipe out or encourage different species.  Fun fact: barley as we know it today is a product of the human harvest of wheat.  Selective pressures which we used to breed good wheat crops also bred usable barley out of the wild varieties that existed.

It could be argued that while these pressures effect* the diversity we see on Earth, a much greater determinant would be mass extinction events.  We are familiar with the end of the dinosaurs which, it was recently [probably] confirmed, was caused by an asteroid impact.  A lesser known but far more devastating extinction event was the Ordovician-Silurian extinction event.  It is hypothesized that a supernova in a nearby arm of the Milky Way created a gamma ray burst which decimated our ozone layer, leaving Earth vulnerable to the UVC rays from our Sun.  This decimated over half of marine life [I have no idea if there was land life at this point, as I didn't look very hard for information].  We are currently living in an extinction period known as the anthropocene in which the natural extinction rate has been accelerated by a factor between 100 and 1000 times.

So things go extinct, this much we have established.  It is the species and thus genetic code that make it through these extinction events that by luck or by adaptation serve as the genetic diversity for the next round of genetic contestants.  In crops [and even humans], diseases, parasites and pests can affect populations much the same way, eliminating vulnerable populations and leaving resistant populations which will hopefully go on to produce another generation of disease/pest-resistant populations.  This effect can be seen when using herbicides in crops.  There is a joke in the field [field?  See what I did there?] that it's easy to find out which weeds are herbicide-resistant, you spray the herbicide in question and see which weeds survive.  The same is true of antibacterial-resistant "superbugs".  You treat people with antibacterial drugs, and the superbugs are left to wreak havoc, C. difficile being an excellent example.

Now, from this we see that genetic diversity can be key to a population surviving some sort of extinction event, at least for the species [and I'm sure I'm butchering this terminology, I apologize whole heartedly].  If you're at all familiar with our current agricultural practices, you might have alarm bells going off in your head. We, as a civilization, tend to grow large monocultures of clones.  You've no doubt heard of the potato famine in Ireland.  The potatoes in Ireland were largely identical species, as only so many were brought over from the New World.  Potato fields were populated of clones, and the genetic diversity was relatively low.  A blight that affected that one variety of potato had an extremely large population at its mercy.  So much so that large numbers of Irish people either died or set sail for America, some of my ancestors among them.

This is why agriculturally useful seeds are being stored at Svalbard.  Various seed banks exist around the world, but they are vulnerable to human conflict and natural disasters.  Banks in Afghanistan and Iraq were recently lost, and are prime examples of why we should store our seeds far away from people.  Svalbard, ideally, should refrigerate itself (it is in and/or around the Arctic Circle), is far enough away from people to avoid conflict, but is reasonably accessible by air.  Most, if not all countries of the world have deposited seeds to the vault, which will be made available to the depositors upon request.

A long time ago (I remember the point of the story, but not the details), a cataloger was wandering through the countryside, taking samples of agriculturally useful seeds.  He came across a family's strain of wheat, and described it as some of the saddest and most pathetic wheat he had ever come across.  Nevertheless, he took samples, and they were deposited and recorded.  A few year ago, the global wheat crop experienced a major disease outbreak (because we planted a large monoculture, as we are wont to do).  Populations were devastated, and costs of bread [leavened and otherwise] increased as a result.  Immediately, efforts went into breeding a new strain of wheat which would be resistant to this new disease.  Where did they find resistance?  You, my monocled, top-hatted, and attractive reader, guessed it.  That pathetic wheat the cataloger had stashed away.  Genetic diversity is key to the survival of the crops we rely on, and it must be preserved if we are to make it in a changing climate.


P.S.  I believe there is a similar effort to Svalbard known as the Millennium Seed Bank in UK.  They not only store agriculturally significant seeds, but also those of threatened (or just regular) plant species.

P.P.S.  Will I ever decide between regular and square brackets?  Keep reading to find out!