Early next month, construction crews will begin carving out a mountain near the North Pole to make way for a unique underground seed storage facility. The so-called doomsday vault will be the ultimate safeguard for the world's agricultural heritage.
The Svalbard International Seed Vault is named for the Norwegian islands where the mountain is located, nearly 1,000 kilometers north of mainland Norway.
Cary Fowler heads the Global Crop Diversity Trust, a U.N. sponsored organization that has promoted the project and will help run the arctic vault. He says fail-safe measures are built into the seed bank design. "There will be about a 120 meter long corridor or tunnel leading through solid rock back to the vaults themselves. And it's really going to look quite a lot like a bank vault. There will be shelves and boxes and in each box about 400 or 500 samples of seeds."
The chambers can accommodate 3 million seed samples, which must be carefully frozen to remain viable for long periods of time. Fowler says the site was chosen in part because it is covered by permafrost, a perpetually frozen layer of earth. "If the refrigeration units fail, it will take months, maybe years for the temperature to rise even to minus 6 degrees [centigrade] level, which is just fine for most seeds."
Designers have also accounted for potential effects of global warming. The vault, situated 130 meters above sea level, is safely above the seven-meter rise in sea level predicted should the Greenland ice sheet melt and even the 61-meter rise that could accompany the unlikely meltdown of Antarctica.
Fowler says the remote vault will have workers on site, but will also be electronically monitored. He jokes that wildlife will help out with security. "Polar bears are ubiquitous in this part of Svalbard. So, anyone going up there to do something untoward [unfavorable] to the seed vault will have to take that into consideration."
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations lists 1400 seed banks worldwide, ranging in size from a single seed to a U.S. collection with 464,000 different samples.
Many are threatened by funding and management problems and even subject to natural disasters, wars and civil strife. Fowler says the arctic vault offers a safety net in the face of environmental uncertainties. "If one is concerned, for example, about climate change and how human beings are going to adapt to climate change, if you are concerned about water constraints or energy constraints, then you have to be concerned about crop diversity because without this crop diversity agriculture will not be able to adapt to climate change, will not be able to produce food to feed growing populations with water and energy supplies."
The Svalbard International Seed Vault is expected to open its doors in September of this year to begin its unique conservation mission, receiving samples of important crop seed from every country on earth.