Published February 26, 2008
LONGYEARBYEN, Norway – A "doomsday" vault built to withstand an earthquake or nuclear strike is ready to open deep in the permafrost of an Arctic mountain where it will protect millions of seeds from manmade and natural disasters.
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault will officially be inaugurated on Tuesday, less than a year after crews started drilling in Norway's Svalbard archipelago, about 620 miles from the North Pole.
The vault, which Norway built at a cost of about $9.1 million, has the capacity to store 4.5 million seed samples from around the globe, shielding them from climate change, wars, natural disasters and other threats.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai of Kenya and Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg are expected to attend the opening ceremony 425 feet deep into the Plataaberget mountain.
The vault is designed to be a "fail-safe backup" for the other 1,400 seed banks in the world, in case they are hit by disasters, said Cary Fowler, executive director of project partner the Global Crop Diversity Trust.
For example, war wiped out seed banks in Iraq and Afghanistan, and one in the Philippines was flooded in the wake of a typhoon in 2006.
"So much of the value of Svalbard is that it is so far away from the dangers," Fowler told The Associated Press during a tour of the vault on Monday.
The frigid archipelago is about 300 miles north of the Norwegian mainland.
Construction started in April last year. Norway owns the vault but countries sending seeds will own the material they deposit.
From the outside, only the entryway is visible. It resembles an elongated concrete tower capped by a glass artwork depicting frozen ice crystals.
Ahead of the opening, the entrance was decorated with igloo-like cubes of snow and an ice sculpture of a polar bear.
Seed vault worker Jimmy Olsen was standing outside with a rifle slung from his shoulder.
"My job is to keep away people who aren't supposed to be here, and guard against polar bears," he said.
There are an estimated 3,000 polar bears on the islands.
A long, steel-lined tunnel leads to three separate chambers for storing seeds, each reached through a frost-covered metal door.
Each of the 32-by-88-foot vaults has blue and orange metal shelves that can hold 1.5 million sample packages — foil containers with 500 seeds each.
The frozen mountain has been chilled further by giant air-conditioning units to bring the temperature down to minus 0.4 Fahrenheit.
Many seeds could last 1,000 years at that temperature, Fowler said.
Reactions from around the world have been mostly positive, but the world spotlight brought by the seed bank has met a cool reception from some locals who treasure the isolation of the Arctic archipelago.
"We like to be here a little bit for ourselves," said Kai Tredal, 42, one of the roughly 2,000 residents of Svalbard's main town of Longyearbyen.
The crop trust, which is helping Norway manage the project, said it was seeking deposits from the world's biggest seed banks first.
The vault is designed to withstand earthquakes — successfully tested by a 6.2-magnitude earthquake at Svalbard last week — and even a direct nuclear strike, said construction leader Magnus Bredeli-Tveiten.
Fowler added that even if power systems failed, the permafrost around the vault would help keep the seeds "cold for 200 years even in the worst-case climate scenario."
He expected the vault's life span to rival that of Egypt's ancient pyramids.