New Scientist - 29.02.2020

(Ben Green) #1
29 February 2020 | New Scientist | 9

Svalbard is cold enough to
keep seeds in the vault safe
in the event of a disaster

HUNDREDS of plant species
around the world have been
backed up at a “doomsday vault”
in Svalbard, Norway, in the first
big deposit to the Arctic facility
since an upgrade to future-proof
it against climate change.
The seeds of onions from Brazil,
guar beans from central Asia and
wildflowers from a meadow at
Prince Charles’s home in the UK
are among the species being
safeguarded at the Svalbard Global
Seed Vault, housed in a mountain
cavern about 1200 kilometres
from the North Pole. Around
60,000 new seed samples have
been added, taking the total to
more than a million.
Norwegian prime minister
Erna Solberg attended the mass
deposit, the single biggest since
the opening of the facility in 2008.
“The deposit event is especially
timely”, she said, because this
is the year by which countries
should have safeguarded the
genetic diversity of crops to
meet the United Nations goal
of eliminating hunger by 2030.
The vault is designed as the
ultimate insurance policy for

smaller seed banks around
the world if they are affected by
extreme weather, conflict, fire and
other events. The first withdrawal
from the bank took place in 2015,
to help conservationists who lost
access to a major seed bank in
Aleppo in the Syrian civil war.
However, the resilience of
the vault itself has recently
come under the spotlight. The
permafrost on Spitsbergen, the
island where the bank is located,
means the seeds should stay
frozen even if the bank’s cooling
system fails. Yet in October 2016,

the entrance tunnel to the facility
was flooded by heavy rainfall and
melting permafrost.
While the vault itself was
untouched, the Arctic experienced
record heat that year and scientists
say this was almost certainly due
to human-made climate change.
The latest deposit marks the
first time the vault has opened
its doors to new seeds since a
€20 million upgrade, including

a new waterproofed access tunnel.
Seed collectors from 36 banks
around the world have deposited
samples in this contribution.
Among the seeds that made the
3-hour flight from Oslo are some
from the Cherokee Nation, the
first US Native American
tribe to deposit seeds at the vault.
The UK’s Kew Gardens added
27 wild plants from Prince Charles’s
residence in Gloucestershire,
while the ICRISAT seed bank in
India deposited more than 2800
samples, adding to the more than
110,000 it has already stored.
Others like the Julius Kühn
Institute in Germany have
brought their first seeds, including
the European crab apple (Malus
sylvestris), a wild relative of
domesticated apples. Seed banks
in Morocco and South Korea have
also made their first deliveries.
The vault still has plenty
of space, as it has capacity for
around 4.5 million samples. But
Hannes Dempewolf at the Crop
Trust, one of the partners that
runs the vault, says that numbers
alone aren’t as important as
prioritising unique species.  ❚

“ It’s absolutely possible
that the solar system
had, at some point, more
planets or fewer planets”

Climate change

Adam Vaughan, Svalbard



A planet may have

been stolen from

our solar system

THE universe is a dangerous place.
An analysis has revealed that stars
can steal planets from each other
in high-speed fly-bys, something
that may even have happened in
our own solar system.
Our knowledge of how planets
form was developed by looking out
at our own cosmic neighbourhood,
but it can’t account for some of the
other star systems we have found,
such as Jupiter-like planets orbiting

extremely close to low-mass stars,
says Rosalba Perna at Stony Brook
University in New York.
Perna and her team used
computer simulations to investigate
what happens when neighbouring
stars have a close encounter. They
found that fly-bys inside dense
clusters of stars wreak havoc on
planetary systems, destroying,
ejecting or even stealing planets
away from their hosts about once
every billion years per system
(arxiv. org/abs/2002.05727).
That may not sound like much,
but multiplied by the huge number
of stars in a cluster, it becomes a

frequent occurrence. This could
explain some of the strange
exoplanets we have discovered,
because gas giants like Jupiter
might be born around sun-like stars
but later seized during encounters
with incoming low-mass stars
The work could also have
relevance closer to home. The
solar system formed among a dense
cluster of about 2000 other stars

over millions of years. That means
there could have been an additional
planet ripped away from the sun
during its early years.
“It’s absolutely possible that the
solar system had, at some point,
more planets or fewer planets, but
it’s something we just have no way
to know any more,” says Perna.
It is definitely possible that our sun
has pilfered a planet, says Eric Ford
at Pennsylvania State University.
“Another system may have swapped
a planet into our own, a yet
undiscovered planet in the far
reaches of our solar system.” ❚
Yaz Ashmawi

Seeds deposited in upgraded

Arctic doomsday vault

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