Svalbard Global Seed Vault has local roots

John M. Longyear is seen at Spitzbergen on June 30, 1907. (Photo courtesy of the Marquette Regional History Center)

MARQUETTE — Late in his career, Upper Peninsula land investor John Munro Longyear helped establish the first large-scale commercial coal mines in the Spitsbergen region of Norway, now known as the Svalbard archipelago. Longyear initially visited the area on a tour of Northern Europe in 1901, a year after the Marquette County drowning death of his son, Howard.

As his family dealt with the grief of that tragic loss and coordinated the ambitious project to physically move their mansion from Marquette to Brookline, Massachusetts, J.M. Longyear took multiple trips to explore these frozen Nordic islands.

The Arctic Coal Company, which Longyear managed from an office in Boston while living between Brookline and Marquette, began operations in Spitsbergen in 1905. The other major partner in this venture was Boston-based Frederick Ayer, who worked with Longyear on several other business projects. The Arctic Coal Company continued extraction activities until 1915 then sold the property to a Norwegian concern in 1916. The Svalbard archipelago, halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole, is still administered from a capital city called Longyearbyen or Longyear City. Longyearbyen remains the world’s northernmost city.

Today, the old coal fields of Svalbard that Longyear helped establish are home to an unexpected monument to human survival, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. In 1984, the Nordic Gene Bank started the project, originally using abandoned Coal Shaft #3 just outside Longyearbyen to house its national seed collection. The site had characteristics necessary for ensuring the long-term stability of a seed collection, permafrost, seismic stability and remoteness from destructive human activities such as war and environmental degradation.

The seed vault evolved from a national to a global project. The 2001 International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, often called the Plant Treaty, established a mandate for multilateral cooperation in protecting plant genetics.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is pictured. (Photo courtesy of Crop Trust)

In 2008, the Norwegian government completed building the state-of-the-art Svalbard Global Seed Vault near the original shaft repository, designed by architect Peter Soderman of Oslo-based Barlindhaug Consulting.

The Svalbard facility exists as a fail-safe repository for humankind’s most valuable inheritance, its crop seeds. The vault now securely houses over a million seed samples, representing over 4,000 food species and tens of thousands of varieties of edible plants. The collection includes seeds from nearly every country on the planet, and seeds remain the property of individual donor nations.

The project is coordinated by the Crop Trust, an international nongovernmental organization that works to protect crop diversity to ensure human food security. Of the approximately 1,700 gene banks worldwide that protect seed crops, the Svalbard vault is renowned for its permanence and security. Crop Trust describes the Svalbard vault as the final back up.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault recently made international news for a somewhat worrying reason. The facility was built to withstand any conceivable manmade or natural disaster, thereby ensuring the continued survival of plant genetics important to humanity.

However, original plans underestimated the effects of rising temperatures, and the facility’s entrance tunnel experienced flooding due to melting permafrost in May 2017. Water damage did not threaten any part of the world’s seed collection and redesign steps have been taken to abate potential damage from future flooding events.

It is intriguing to consider what J.M. Longyear would have thought about the Svalbard Global Seed Vault project. A passionate outdoorsman with a deep sense of gratitude for the health-improving role that nature played in his own life, it is likely that Longyear would have taken pride in his unintentional yet tangible influence on this ambitious seed saving initiative.

Longyear would perhaps have taken comfort knowing the Arctic isles he visited in a time of personal grief became the site of one of humankind’s best hopes for survival in case of existential danger.

Coal Shaft #3, the original home of the seed vault, is being repurposed yet again. It now houses the Arctic World Archive, a repository for historical documents projected onto high-resolution film. Experts predict that film can last up to 1,000 years in Coal Shaft #3, with its low oxygen levels and stable sub-zero temperatures.