Safeguarding plants in an uncertain climate future

Svalbard Global Seed Vault
The entrance of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Spitsbergen, Norway, 2011. / Image Timo Palo (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported)

Laura Nielsen for Frontier Scientists

On a remote island in Norway, deep within an old coal mine sealed behind blast doors, seeds sit in the cold and quiet and wait. They are an insurance against an uncertain future. Our uncertain climate future is altering habitats so swiftly that plants can’t keep up, and we’re struggling to define how best to respond.

Preserving plant genes in seed banks

Seed banks are one tool in the fight to preserve biodiversity. Banks like the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway are collections that serve as gene banks, housing seeds from a wide range of species. You may have heard the Svalbard collection referred to as a doomsday vault, because the seeds are held as insurance against catastrophe. The vault is meant to withstand nuclear strikes, nuclear winter, disease outbreaks, and catastrophic natural disasters. While the Svalbard Valt is an iconic example, there are actually many seed collections scattered across the globe.

White Cottongrass BLM Seeds of Success Alaska
The BLM Alaska State Office’s collecting team tracks down seeds from White Cottongrass to add to Seeds of Success’ growing inventory. / Courtesy Bureau of Land Management. BLM AK930, Seeds of Success.

In the field, botanists serving seed banks attempt to collect a wide range of genetic diversity within each species by gathering seeds from all reaches of the plant’s range. They record the local conditions like soil content and neighboring plants, because interaction with the local ecosystem can be vital for species success. In the lab, the seeds are cleaned and sorted before being stored in controlled temperature- and humidity- conditions. Occasionally, preserved seeds are germinated (made to grow) to test their viability.

Seed banks can help restore ecosystems

These seed banks serve communities in real-time. They house seeds from wild crop relatives, and from crop regimes that have fallen out of favor in the modern-day market but are still important food crop puzzle pieces for agriculture. Seed banks also use their stocks proactively: regenerating failing populations, deploying less disease prone stock to stricken areas, and reseeding after devastating natural disasters to provide building blocks for ecosystem recovery.

Seeds of Success

Reseeding plants in public lands destroyed by wildfire to stabilize, rehabilitate and restore ecosystems was the original mission of Seeds of Success, a Bureau of Land Management project started in 2001. In 2008 the initiative added to its mission: Seeds of Success aims to collect seeds from all of the 14,000 or so native plant species in the United States. Seeds of Success works in partnership with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew Millennium Seed Bank in the UK. When seeds are collected and stored in the United States under Seeds of Success’ purview, a duplicate sample is sent to England for inclusion in the Millennium Seed Bank Project, which in 2009 reached the 10% mark in its ongoing goal of cataloging and storing all wild plant species in the world.

Under the right conditions, seeds remain viable (they can be successfully grown) for many years. A 2,000 year old date palm was regrown from genetic material preserved in seeds found in Israel. And a team of Russian scientists reports regrowing narrow-leafed campion plants from seeds squirreled away in the frozen Arctic tundra by an arctic ground squirrel 32,000 years ago.

Seed Cathedral rods
Inside the Seed Cathedral, the UK Pavilion for Shanghai World Expo 2010. Fibre optic rods showcased seeds from the Kew Gardens’ Millennium Seedbank. / Image Carsten Ullrich (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic)

Climate change is harming biodiversity

Seed banking and other conservation strategies like protecting preserves and linking protected lands with corridors can help protect plant species and give them space to grow and spread, which may mitigate loss of biodiversity. Supporting conservation efforts and examining strategies now is vital; anthropogenic (human initiated) climate change is changing biomes at an unprecedented rate. Rising temperatures, changing weather patterns, record-breaking droughts, and earlier growing seasons are putting strain on plants and throwing off natural rhythms. Plants grow and flower on a timetable scheduled to temperature; they have no choice. However, pollinators like bees and migratory birds function based on other (poorly-understood) schedules. Ranges are shifting, and migration times are changing. Timing mix-ups cause both the pollinator species and the flowers’ reproductive success to suffer. And it’s all happening much too fast to allow for adaptation, so it comes down to the margin of error each species has in its optimal conditions and range; can the plant species survive heightened temperatures, move north to higher latitudes, or travel upwards in elevation to cooler mountain heights?

In 50 to 100 years, habitat conditions will be quite different than they are today, and we don’t fully understand how those changes will play out. According to the Key Royal Botanic Gardens, one in five plant species faces extinction. Without assistance, many plants will go extinct in our climate-changed world. The United Nations is among those who hope to significantly reduce biodiversity loss. 2011-2020 was declared the United Nations Decade on Biodiversity. Seed banks and robust conservation efforts that preserve wild lands are solid steps in the right direction.

Frontier Scientists: presenting scientific discovery in the Arctic and beyond

Next week we’ll examine the promises and pitfalls of Assisted Migration, a suggested strategy to help plants move to more welcoming ranges that has biologists, environmentalists, scientists and conservationists debating.


  • ‘Plants Under Pressure — a global assessment’ Kew Royal Botanical Gardens (2010)
  • ‘Taking Wildness in Hand: Rescuing Species’ Michelle Nijhuis in Orion Magazine (2008)
  • ‘A Hunt for Seeds to Save Species, Perhaps by Helping Them Move’ Anne Raver in New York Times : Science (2009)
  • ‘Dead for 32,000 Years, an Arctic Plant Is Revived’ Nicholas Wade in New York Times : Science (2012)