Frozen vault to keep seeds safe for the future
Tuesday, 26 February 2008

Agency

Aimed at providing mankind with a Noah's Ark of food in the event of a global catastrophe, an Arctic 'doomsday vault' filled with samples of the world's most important seeds will be inaugurated in Norway today, reports The Sydney Morning Herald.

The president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, and the Nobel peace prize-winning environmentalist Wangari Matai will be among those present at the inauguration of the vault, which has been carved into the permafrost of a remote Arctic mountain, 1000 kilometres from the North Pole.

The vault is made up of three spacious chambers each measuring 27 by 10 metres, creating a long trident-shaped tunnel bored into the sandstone and limestone. It has the capacity to hold up to 4.5 million batches of seeds from all known varieties of the planet's main food crops, making it possible to re-establish plants if they disappear from their natural environment or are obliterated by disasters.

'The facility is built to hold twice as many varieties of agricultural crops as we think exist,' said Cary Fowler, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust and mastermind of the project. 'It will not be filled up in my lifetime, nor in my grandchildren's lifetime.' Norway has assumed the $9.7 million cost of building the vault in its Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, where, ironically, no crops grow.

Secured behind an airlock door, the three airtight chambers have the capacity to house duplicates of samples from all the world's more than 1400 existing seed banks.

Many of the more vulnerable seed banks have contributed to the 'doomsday vault' collection, but some of the world's biodiversity has already disappeared, with gene vaults in Iraq and Afghanistan destroyed by war and a seed bank in the Philippines annihilated by a typhoon.

By the time of the inauguration today, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault should hold some 250,000 samples, which will remain the property of their countries of origin.

Pakistan and Kenya, both undergoing serious unrest, have sent seed collections, while samples sent from Colombia have been closely scrutinised by the police to avoid the project becoming a vehicle for drug trafficking. 'I've been working in this field for 30 years and I thought I knew at least all the crops,' Fowler said.

After receiving a list of all the different seeds in the vault, however, 'I must admit there are a number of crops I've never heard of before.'

It is a spectacular amount of diversity for Svalbard, where no trees grow due to the permafrost and where the mercury plummets to an average 14 degrees below zero in winter.

The Norwegian archipelago, which is home to some 2,300 people, was selected, not despite, but because of, its inhospitable climate, as well as its remoteness from civil strife.

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