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Top security Arctic vault built to store 'Noah's Ark' of seeds

Top security Arctic vault built to store 'Noah's Ark' of seeds

Carved into the permafrost of a remote Arctic mountain, a "doomsday vault" housing samples of the world's most important seeds is taking shape to provide mankind with a Noah's Ark of food in the event of a global catastrophe.
At the end of a narrow gravel road in Norway's Arctic archipelago of Svalbard where, ironically, no crops grow, construction workers are toiling away on the top-security seed vault with six months to go before it opens.
An enormous freezer measuring 5,200 cubic meters, the vault will preserve some 4.5 million batches of seeds from all known varieties of the planet's food crops.
The hope is the vault will make it possible to re-establish crops obliterated by major disasters.
"It's a cheap insurance policy," says Cary Fowler, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, the project's mastermind.
Working around the clock
At its current stage, the vault looks like a deep, trident-shaped tunnel bored into the sandstone and limestone.
Workers drilled around the clock to finish the tunnel, taking advantage of the Arctic's midnight sun.
The 120-meter dark passageway leads to three spacious cold chambers lit up by floodlights.
Once construction is completed, the entrance, which will shoot out of the mountainside, will be a narrow, triangular portal made of cement and steel, illuminated with artwork that changes according to the Arctic light.
Behind the airlock door, the three airtight chambers will feature row after row of metal shelves, on which will be stacked boxes containing the seed samples collected from hundreds of existing, more vulnerable, seed banks around the world.
"It doesn't take an asteroid hitting the Earth ... to endanger the biodiversity. Technical failures, bad management, typhoons or wars all contribute" to the threat, Fowler said.
Already, some of the world's biodiversity "has become extinct like a Tyrannosaurus Rex," he said, citing the destruction of seed banks in Iraq and Afghanistan due to wars and another one in the Philippines due to a typhoon.
Storage temperature
Protected by high walls and fortified concrete, an armored door, a sensory alarm and the native polar bears that roam the region, the "doomsday vault" is being built 130 meters above current sea level - high enough that it would not flood if the Greenland and Antarctica ice sheets melt entirely due to global warming.
The seeds of wheat, maize, oat and other crops will be stored at a constant temperature of 18 degrees C below zero.
In these conditions, sorghum seeds can be preserved for more than 19,000 years.
And even if the refrigeration system fails, the temperature will remain colder than 3.5 degrees Celsius below zero thanks to the permafrost.
The Norwegian archipelago, which is politically stable and distant from any seismic activity, was selected for its remote location "away from natural disasters, wars, civil strife and a lot of the kind of craziness that goes on in the world today," Fowler said.
The seed samples will remain the property of their country of origin. They will be sent to the vault in small, airtight packages, with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Norwegian government providing financial assistance to help poor countries do so.
The foundation and Oslo have donated almost 40 million dollars to the Global Crop Diversity Trust, an organization sponsored by the U.N. Food and Agriculture organization and financed by both public and private funds.
"We are trying to catch the diversity not between different species but within different species," Fowler said.
"If there is not enough genetic diversity the species will become extinct," he added.
Genetic diversity
There are currently some 120,000 types of rice in the world, some of which can grow under six meters of water while others thrive in semi-arid conditions.
"One can be as different from the other, as a dachshund from a Great Dane," Fowler said.
This genetic diversity, which makes it possible to choose the right species at the right time in the right place, could be the key to solving some of the planet's biggest challenges, such as climate change, water scarcity and energy conservation.
"No one knows today the potential benefit of these seeds - the commercial value in crops or whether the genes can be used for medicines," Norway's International Development Aid Minister Erik Solheim said.
"There is also a moral issue to preserve an essential part of our cultural heritage for future generations," he added.


Updated : 2021-02-27 19:02 GMT+08:00