OSLO, Norway – It sounds like something from a science fiction film — a doomsday vault carved into a frozen mountainside on a secluded Arctic island ready to serve as a Noah's Ark for seeds in case of a global catastrophe.
But Norway's ambitious project is on its way to becoming reality Monday when construction begins on the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, designed to house as many as 3 million of the world's crop seeds.
Prime ministers of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Iceland were to attend the cornerstone ceremony on Monday morning near the town of Longyearbyen in Norway's remote Svalbard Islands, roughly 620 miles from the North Pole.
Norway's Agriculture Minister Terje Riis-Johansen has called the vault a "Noah's Ark on Svalbard."
Its purpose is to ensure the survival of crop diversity in the event of plant epidemics, nuclear war, natural disasters or climate change, and to offer the world a chance to restart growth of food crops that may have been wiped out.
The seeds, packaged in foil, would be stored at such cold temperatures that they could last hundreds, even thousands, of years, according to the independent Global Crop Diversity Trust.
The trust, founded in 2004, has also worked on the project and will help run the vault, which is scheduled to open and start accepting seeds from around the world in September 2007.
Oil-rich Norway first proposed the idea a year ago, drawing wide international interest, Riis-Johansen said.
The Svalbard Archipelago, 300 miles north of the mainland, was selected because it is located far from many threats and has a consistently cold climate.
Those factors will help protect the seeds and safeguard their genetic makeup, Norway's Foreign Ministry said. The vault will have thick concrete walls, and even if all cooling systems fail, the temperature in the frozen mountain will never rise above freezing due to permafrost, it said.
While the facility will be fenced in and guarded, Svalbard's free-roaming polar bears, known for their ferocity, could also act as natural guardians, according to the Global Diversity Trust.
The Nordic nation is footing the bill, amounting to about $4.8 million for infrastructure costs.
"This facility will provide a practical means to re-establish crops obliterated by major disasters," Cary Fowler, the trust's executive secretary, said in a statement, adding that crop diversity is also threatened by "accidents, mismanagement and shortsighted budget cuts."
Already, some 1,400 seed banks around the world, most of them national, hold samples of their host country's crops.
But these banks are vulnerable to shutdowns, natural disasters, war and lack of funds, said Riis-Johansen.
Storing duplicate seeds in the Svalbard vault is meant to offer a fail-safe system for the planet.
The idea of a global seed bank has been around since the early 1980s, but unresolved issues, such as ownership rights to genetic material, stalled it until the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization adopted the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture in 2001.
While Norway will own the vault facility, countries contributing seeds will own the material they deposit — much as with a bank safe deposit box. The Global Crop Diversity Trust will help developing countries pay the cost of preparing and sending seeds.