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Norwegian Arctic Islands Hold Biodiversity Bank

September 13, 2007 at 6:50 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, another in our reports from the Arctic. Under the deep permafrost is a newly constructed vault containing every variety of seed from around the world. Tom Clarke of Independent Television News reports from the Norwegian Arctic islands.

TOM CLARKE, ITV News Correspondent: Not much grows in the high Arctic, and what does ekes out a meager living during this short summer just a few hundred miles from the North Pole. But the very fact this landscape is frozen is why it’s been chosen as the home of a global effort to protect the plants we’re most directly dependent on for food.

Carved into this mountain on the island of Spitzburgen is the entrance to a seed bank. At the end of this tunnel blasted out of frozen rock, three giant vaults are taking shape. Why here? Because it’s cold and it’s safe.

DAG RINDAL BROX, Project Manager, Global Feed Bank: It’s permafrost here, so you can store the seeds in minus 40 degrees Celsius. Temperatures will never rise beyond it. And it’s an island that is a neutral island and that you know everybody who comes here will either come by plane or you come by boat. So you know every people who come up here.

Building a "backup vault"

TOM CLARKE: Many countries keep stores of important seeds in case disease or drought wipes out key crops. The idea here is to build a backup vault, a kind of Fort Knox for crops, where other seed banks can make deposits, whether it's wheat, cassava or cabbage.

It's a long-planned-for endeavor given new impetus by the threat of climate change to plants. The seed bank now opens next February. Each vault can store 1.5 million different seeds. Space is at a premium. There's 100,000 varieties of rice alone.

So we're here visiting a seed bank designed to ensure the world's biodiversity against the effects of climate change, but the plants that actually live here on Svalbard outside the vault are some of the first to feel the effects of global warming.

We accompanied Elisabeth Cooper into the tundra she and her students have studied for seven years. Not many botanists carry high-powered rifles, but then not many botanists study Arctic plants. And for those that do, polar bear attacks are an occupational hazard. Dr. Cooper is studying how climate change is affecting humble arctic flora like polar willow, mountain avens, and Arctic white bell heather.

ELISABETH COOPER, University Centre, Svalbard: This is one of my snow fences that I made last autumn.

Climate change in the Artic

TOM CLARKE: Climate change expected to bring more snow to Svalbard Islands. Experiments here are designed to see whether these tiny plants can continue to thrive under deeper flurries.

ELISABETH COOPER: We have large areas of tundra which are likely to be affected by climate change which at the moment are holding huge amounts of carbon. But if their carbon balance is shifted, they might be releasing more carbon.

TOM CLARKE: Initial results suggest plants here might struggle, so as well as threatening this fragile ecosystem, further warming could turn the high Arctic from an area that helps keep our climate stable into one that makes it warmer still. And that would affect the whole planet, valuable crops and all.