Did you know about the construction of a Doomsday Seed Vault in the Arctic and the science behind it?
A journey to the end of the earth will show you a place that might someday save humankind. It’s a bank built to last 10,000 years. It’s not money or gold but the world’s most important assets which are being preserved and made safe from climate change and nuclear war, locked deep inside the doomsday vault.
High on a wind-blasted Arctic mountain, a stark concrete doorway leads to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a store to ensure the survival of the world’s most precious plants among the last bits of land before the North Pole.
What happens if war or global warming threaten the key plants that the world depends on for food? A consortium of scientists is running what it believes is an answer: a deep-freeze for thousands of seed samples that is meant to serve as a back-up to cope with the worst-case scenarios.
Designed to cope with the most pessimistic nightmare of a doomsday the Global Seed Vault is buried inside a mountain on the freezing Arctic islands of ice-covered Svalbard. Way up north, in the permafrost, 800 miles or 1300 kilometers beyond the Arctic Circle (The North Pole), is the world’s largest secure seed storage, opened by the Norwegian Government in February 2008. From all across the globe, crates of seeds are sent here for safe and secure long-term storage in cold and dry rock vaults.
The very first barrier to entry is the sheer remoteness of the location. Next comes an unintended hazard – a sheet of rock-hard ice cover. Each step is perilous with the blow of piercing wind and an extreme quiet atmosphere. The vault is secured by four sets of locked doors, according to the Crop Trust.
Another door opens on to a tunnel that gently descends deeper into the mountain. Most of the tunnel is lined with concrete but further inside the rock face is bare. Voices start to echo.
The concept of the project is simple: imagine everything that could go wrong with the world’s key food crops and make sure samples of them are untouched here.
The temperature is minus 4F and in the permafrost where the ground never thaws. So the entrance itself is 130m above the sea comfortably above the most horrific projections for how the oceans could rise if there is a total melting of the polar ice-caps in the coming centuries.
Thick rock offers the best insurance against missiles. Crystals of ice are glinting on the rock walls. One more door lies ahead. It is thickly encrusted in ice. The air beyond is kept at minus 18C.
The store has rows of shelves, each one crammed with large plastic containers of the sort you might use to keep files or move house. Inside are tiny silver packets that hold the seeds themselves – more than 865,871 packets in all, representing more than 5,000 species and nearly half of the world’s most important food crops and is capable of holding many more.
The labels are fascinating – there are seeds from Africa, Asia and America. There are also boxes from North Korea – that’s a big surprise.
Down on the water is the northernmost town in the world, Longyearbyen, with about 2,000 people. But polar bears outnumber the people, and reindeer outnumber everything. It’s an otherworldly place, a twilight zone, where, sometimes, the sun never rises and the moon never sets. In the dead of winter, it was the last stop in the 30-year journey of American scientist Cary Fowler.
Cary Fowler runs the Global Crop Diversity Trust set up by the United Nations and a group called Bioversity International. His safe house cost $9 million. Norway paid for construction, Bill Gates paid for the shipping, and seeds from nearly every nation on earth are locked inside.
From the outside, the vault looks like a concrete wedge pounded into a mountain. But as you walk through the door, you cross from a hostile wasteland into a safe house for humanity. It looks like a “Doomsday vault”.
Fowler says. “We built it to last as long as we could imagine. I don’t know what was in the minds of the people who built the pyramids. Maybe they were building to last forever too. But I can’t think of anything that’s built in our lifetime that’s been built with this kind of time horizon.”
Inside, pipes provide additional refrigeration, despite the fact the vault is only several hundred miles from the North Pole. “We’re going freeze it even further,” Fowler explains.
They freeze it colder than the permafrost, so that if the earth warms and the power goes out, the vault will stay frozen for another 25 years.
The treasures that the vault was built to house came by plane and approached an airstrip at the base of the mountain nearby. What’s in the boxes took 10,000 years to develop and 70 years to collect.
“This is the coldest place in the mountain. We wanted to take advantage of the naturally frozen temperatures down here. We wanted absolutely the coldest spot we could find,” Fowler explains. There are air locked doors and they keep the cold air in.
Inside the boxes that came off the plane are millions of silver envelopes, containing seeds of almost everything.
Here’s the detailed coverage of the doomsday Seeds Vault by 60 Minutes:
The”Svalbard Global Seed Vault” is built to warehouse backup copies of all the world’s crops – 1.5 billion seeds – including everything from California sunflowers to ancient Chinese rice. If an asteroid strikes the earth, seeds to restart agriculture would come from the vault. But science fiction aside, the main purpose is to protect against a doomsday that is unfolding right now because the plants we’ve been eating for 10,000 years are going extinct.
“If you ask somebody ‘How many kinds of apples are there?’ They’re going to say ‘Well, there’s red, there’s green. There’s yellow. There’s Macintosh. There’s Golden Delicious.’ They’re going to give you an answer like that,” Fowler says.
“But in fact, in the 1800s in the United States people were growing 7,100 named varieties of apples. 7,100 different varieties of apples that are catalogued,” Fowler explains.
“Today we’ve lost about 6,800 of those, so the extinction rate for apples varieties in the United States is about 86 percent,” he explains.
Extinction exists in all crops. Estimates are that every day one crop strain disappears. And here’s why: seeds used to be passed down through families. But today, farmers are planting mass-produced industrial seeds. The upside is more food. The downside is the family variety goes extinct.
Almost every country collects it’s own seeds in banks for safe keeping. And for 110 years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has sent scientists, called “plant explorers,” to the ends of the earth to collect seeds.
Just by looking at the material in a farmer’s field you might say, ‘That one’s no good. Don’t collect it.” But you can’t anticipate what value that might have. There may be genes in that material that are gonna be of immense value in the future. Today, scientists prevent famines by going through tens of thousand of plants looking for genes to fight disease or drought or any other problem.
There was an important seed bank in Afghanistan which has been destroyed. The Afghan seeds were thrown away because looters wanted the glass jars they were kept in. Much of Iraq’s seed collection was lost in that war and, in the Philippines, a typhoon washed away much of the world’s most important rice bank.
“Doomsday doesn’t have to come in the form of an asteroid. Doomsday can come in the form of an equipment failure or mismanagement just human mismanagement or a lack of funding or a typhoon, or something like that. And those kinds of things are happening all the time,” Fowler says.
Once that crop is lost, Fowler says we’ll never see it again. “And any kind of characteristic that it might have had is gone. It’s off the artist’s palate. It’s the color that we can’t use anymore. It may have the disease or pest resistance that we absolutely need to have a viable crop in the future. Gone.”
Svalbard may seem a strange place to build an ark for plants. The islands are a white desert, barren and chilled to 30 below zero. The sun never comes up over the horizon in the wintertime. It’s ironic that the world’s agricultural heritage is being stored in a place with no agriculture at all.
But the mountains are just the place to save the resources of life itself-remote from nuclear war, from storms, and rising seas.
Around six months earlier some of the Syrian seeds – including ancient and potentially sturdy varieties of wheat, barley and chickpeas – were extracted from the deep-frozen shelves because they were needed back in the Middle East. The withdrawal actually serves as proof that such a vault is necessary.
In all, 128 boxes – out of a total of 350 originally sent from Aleppo – were carried back through all the doors, up the tunnel and over the dangerous ice-patch to be flown to Lebanon and Morocco.
Whether it’s a dry climate, a new virus, or infestation, the genes to stop a famine may be in one of the boxes stored in the vault. When the last of the seeds descends the tunnel, the lights will go out, the vault will be locked, and Cary Fowler will have achieved his life’s work-preserving civilization’s past against an uncertain future.
“So, if worst comes to worst this does save the world,” he says. “But it also has a more mundane feature which is that it helps us everyday by feeding people.”
That’s exactly what this place was designed for. Most countries have their own stores of key plant varieties and the Global Seed Vault is meant to work as a back-up to those back-ups.