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High-altitude seed bank in Ladakh is preparing for apocalypse

Ravleen Kaur | Updated on: 13 February 2017, 5:18 IST

The structure

  • The seed bank is a two-room structure made of cement and concrete
  • It is located at an altitude of 5,500m above sea level, at the Chang La pass in Ladakh
  • One of the rooms is power-backed to maintain temperatures, while the other isn\'t

The purpose

  • The bank is meant to store plant seeds for the maximum possible amount of time
  • Its location guarantees nine months of sub-zero temperatures
  • In case of extreme climate change or a man-made apocalypse, it could provide new building blocks

More in the story

  • How seeds can last for thousands of years
  • The plan to preserve samples of all of India\'s rich biodiversity

You would surely have heard about the Pangong lake in Ladakh. It's that pristine blue lake amid the arid snow-capped mountains where Kareena Kapoor slaps Aamir Khan before kissing him in the last scene of the movie 3 Idiots.

Pangong gets a large number of tourists every year. Some come for the sheer natural beauty of the site, while others come for the Bollywood-inspired 'I was there' moment. But almost none of them know that 35 kilometres before they reach the lake is the Chang La seed bank.

It is the world's highest terrestrial research and development facility and also only the second permafrost seed bank in the world, after the International Seed Vault in Norway's Svalbard.

The plant germplasm storage facility was set up in 2010 by the Defence Institute of High Altitude Research in Leh, under the aegis of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). Today, it boasts of more than 5,000 samples of about 200 plant species.

Freezing genetic diversity

chang la seed bank

Photo: Dihar

Ladakhi taxi drivers always tie a prayer flag or a reverential cloth to appease the gods for a safe journey through the difficult terrain to Pangong. The road to Pangong from Leh has areas of varying altitude. Chang La itself is the world's second highest moterable pass.

More than five kilometres above the sea level, Chang La is shrouded in snow for about nine months a year. There is no village within a periphery of 30 kilometres from the pass, thanks to low oxygen and temperatures dipping below -20 degrees Celsius in the winters.

Though inhospitable for living, agricultural scientists found it ideal for preserving seeds. To create a research-cum-storage facility in this naturally frozen area meant that the seeds could be conserved without the extra energy required to maintain low temperatures.

"Preserving seeds for the long term - a minimum of 30 years - in the hot and humid weather would mean a high recurring expenditure on energy. We are just cashing in on the naturally low temperatures here," says Dr Narendra Singh, the scientist in charge of the seed bank, posted at the Chandigarh station of DIHAR.

A gene bank holds critical significance in times of climate change and other human-induced disasters. As per the Food and Agricultural Organisation, about 75% of the plant genetic diversity has been lost in the last century.

The seed bank is located at Chang La, at an altitude of 5,500m above sea level

The rich floral biodiversity of the Himalayas is also under threat due to over-exploitation, forest and pasture destruction for constructing buildings and roads, and the consequent soil erosion.

In such circumstances, it is important to have a seed bank that has a duplicate of each unique member of a plant species stored away from the source where it grows.

Possible longevity

An average temperature of -18 to -20 degree Celsius is considered ideal for the storage of seeds for the maximum possible duration.

As per data mentioned in a bulletin published by DIHAR, the expected longevity of seeds of food crops like onion at this temperature is about 413 years, provided a moisture of 5% is maintained in the storage area.

Wheat and rice seeds can survive for more than 1,600 and 1,100 years respectively in those temperatures and moisture levels.

Barley, the staple crop of Ladakh, can survive for more than 2,000 years. Pea seeds, however, can survive the longest, with a predicted lifespan of about 9,000 years if kept undisturbed in the same conditions.

Just imagine that - a pea seed locked in the facility in 2015 can be taken out and planted in the year 11015 without any problem.

The structure

The bank, on the surface, looks like an ordinary house. It is the size of two large rooms and is made with cement and concrete above the surface. It is painted white and has a sloping roof to prevent snow from collecting.

Before being stored, the seeds go through a rigorous process of lab testing, where each strain is studied and classified in detail before it gets labelled and goes into a black box. These boxes are then neatly stacked inside the two-room structure.

The rooms store different types of seeds. One is an ordinary room that stores a variety of seeds that can survive fluctuating room temperatures throughout the year, while the other room is power backed and stores more fragile varieties that need cooling during the three months of summer.

The rise in summer temperature does pose a problem. Generator sets or power backup have to be used to maintain artificial cooling in summers when the temperature can go up to 7 degrees Celsius.

"But during our four-year experiment, we kept samples in both the artificially-cooled rooms and in natural conditions in summers. We did not observe any change in the ones conserved in natural weather conditions," says Dr Singh.

National and international storage capability

The DRDO doesn't just store seeds of local Ladakhi plants, but also accepts requests from other government bodies to store their seeds. In a sense, it operates much like a bank locker.

Besides samples from DIHAR and Ladakh agricultural and forest departments, the bank also stores seeds from various laboratories of the DRDO in the North-East and Haldwani, Uttarakhand. It also holds about 30 samples from the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources (NBPGR) that has its own seed bank in Delhi.

Like in bank lockers, samples from other organisations are stored in black boxes that can only be opened by the owner organisation.

This is only the second permafrost seed bank in the world, after Norway's Svalbard

Nationally, organisations can ask DIHAR for these seeds - for commercial breeding or for research and development purposes. But internationally, the request has to be routed through the NBPGR, says Dr Singh.

As of now, most of the plant species are from the Ladakh region, but DIHAR plans to expand the facility further.

India has about two lakh distinct germplasm, so the bank intends to create a capacity for at least 2.5 lakh species, said an official. The bank has signed an MoU with the Delhi-based NBPGR for this purpose, and the local administration in Leh has agreed to provide about 100 acres of land around the existing facility. However, no deadline has been set for when the bank will achieve this target.

An ongoing experiment

The experiment started in 2001 with a feasibility study to find out the scope of long-term germplasm storage in the high-altitude regions of Ladakh.

Many sites in the cold desert were considered, including a mountain pass near the Siachen glacier, which has a permanent presence of the defence forces.

But according to sources, the glacier was not the preferred choice of the scientists because of the inhospitable living conditions and also because of security reasons.

Finally, the Chang La site, at an altitude of 5,500 metres above sea level, was selected and DIHAR, in collaboration with NBPGR, stored 149 seeds of 47 major field and horticultural crops there.

It was found that the seeds sustained near original quality at least for a short term of four years. This led to the setting up of the present bank.

"The only real problem that we as scientists face is to stay there for long-term research because of low oxygen levels. A station conducive for human stay is under construction there and hopefully that problem will be sorted out soon," said Dr Singh.

The seed bank might take a while to benefit the neighbourhood farmer wanting to farm a bygone variety of millet. So far, none of the strains at the bank is under risk of becoming endangered.

But, scientists believe, given the pace of climate change and natural disasters, it is always better to be prepared.

First published: 4 October 2015, 4:04 IST