In a remote mountainside on the Norwegian tundra sits the "doomsday vault," a backup against disaster -- manmade or otherwise. Inside lives the last hope should the unthinkable occur: a global seedbank that could be used to replant the world.
It's a modern day Noah's Ark, in other words, full not of animals but of plantlife.
The Vault is dug into the Platåberget or plateau mountain near the village of Longyearbyen, Svalbard -- a group of islands north of mainland Norway. The arctic permafrost offers natural freezing for the seeds, while additional cooling brings the temperatures down to minus 0.4 degrees Fahrenheit. Should disaster wipe out a species -- or in the case of a large-scale global crisis -- its stockers hope the seeds stored there could be used to restore life.
This week, the Global Crop Diversity Trust that protects and stocks the vault tucked away new seeds in this modern-day Noah's Ark: mold-resistant beans, a German pink tomato and a wild strawberry plucked from the flanks of a Russian volcano. With these new deposits, the Svalbard "doomsday" Global Seed Vault will store a half-million seed varieties.
The Vault is kept safe by its remote location, for one thing. But if the mountain of snow enshrouding the storage rooms isn't enough protection, what better body guard than one of nature's biggest beasts?
"The region on Svalbard surrounding the Seed Vault is remote, severe, and inhabited by polar bears," according to the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which helps to support the vault's operations.
The preciousness of the seeds there is also reflected in the inaccessible nature of the vault. "Anyone seeking access to the seeds themselves will have to pass through four locked doors: the heavy steel entrance doors, a second door approximately 115 meters down the tunnel and finally the two keyed air-locked doors," the Trust writes. "Keys are coded to allow access to different levels of the facility. Not all keys unlock all doors."
Other seedbanks in in Iraq and Afghanistan were destroyed by war, while a bank in the Philippines was flooded by the tremendous typhoon in 2006. The Svalbard bank is designed to survive earthquakes and even nuclear strikes. That it contains such a wealth of seeds is a tremendous achievement.
"Reaching the half-million mark brings mixed emotions, because while it shows that the vault at Svalbard is now the gold standard for diversity, it comes at a time when our agriculture systems are really sitting on a knife's edge," said Cary Fowler, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which partners with the Norwegian government and the Nordic Genetic Resource Center in Sweden in operating the vault.
Fowler added, "If crops and agriculture don't adapt to climate change, neither will humanity."
Like all seeds coming to the vault, the new ones are duplicates of those from other collections. Material directly acquired by plant breeders to develop disease-resistant and "climate-ready" crops, and to meet the challenge of rapidly growing populations, is maintained by genebanks, not the seed vault.
"Svalbard is a fail-safe backup to be used whenever a depositing seed bank loses part or all of its collection, but we should focus equally on averting the disasters in the first place," Fowler said.
Other seeds shipped to the doomsday vault include: semi-dwarf wheat and rice from the early 1960s; disease-resistant soybeans; and the German pink tomato, a hardy sweet-flavored tomato transported to Iowa in 1883 by a Bavarian immigrant.
"We're seeing in several of the soybean varieties intriguing traits that could allow farmers to confront such problems as drought or extreme heat, shorter or longer growing seasons, or higher levels of CO2 [carbon dioxide]," said Dave Ellis, curator at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation.
The giant icebox of sorts officially opened on Feb. 26, 2008.
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