Dug into a remote mountainside deep in the Arctic Circle is one of the most important biological collections in the world. Designed to withstand the effects of any man-made or natural disaster, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault keeps stashes of native crop seeds from almost every nation as a backup in case a country's own collection deteriorates or worse. This backup has finally been called upon, as the ongoing civil war in Syria has done serious damage to the region's vital reserve of local crops.
The continuing conflict in the Middle East has spurred the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA), which manages what remains of the Syrian seed bank, to request the first ever withdrawal of seeds from the “doomsday” vault. “Protecting the world's biodiversity in this manner is precisely the purpose of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault,” Brian Lainoff, a spokesman for the Crop Trust, which runs the doomsday vault in conjunction with the Norwegian government, told Reuters.
Inside the vault, which is kept at a chilly -18°C (-0.4°F). Mari Tefre/Svalbard Globale frøhvelv/Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0
Opened in 2008, the underground storage vault is situated 1,300 kilometers (800 miles) from the North Pole on Spitsbergen, the largest island in the Svalbard archipelago. This location was thought to be ideal as it lacks tectonic activity and the ground is frozen year round. The vault was built 130 meters (430 feet) above sea level, meaning that it will stay protected even if all the ice caps melt and sea levels rise. It’s thought that even if the power failed, the seeds would stay frozen for two centuries.
The vault contains seeds from almost every country in the world, and currently holds around 860,000 samples of the most important agricultural crops, though it has the capacity to store a staggering 4.5 million varieties. It acts as an insurance for the nearly 2,000 seed banks that exist throughout the world, with each one sending samples from their own collection for safe storage. Not merely a frozen time capsule, any institution that deposits seeds can request them back again at any point in time in the event that their own collection is damaged or lost.
This is the basis for ICARDA withdrawing roughly 130 out of 325 boxes it had previously deposited in the vault, to replace the seeds in the gene bank in the Syrian city of Aleppo that has been damaged by the raging war. The 116,000 samples contained in the boxes include wheat, barley and grasses adapted to dry environments, which ICARDA hopes to plant and harvest by fall, before returning new seeds to the vault.