Yes, fortunately up to this moment, we have not yet been swallowed by tremendous tsunami or broiling tephra since the earth survived “the prophesied doomsday” in 2012. But that doesn’t mean humans don’t have a Noah’s Ark, or we will never need one some day.
Tucked on a remote Norwegian island, 800 miles from the North Pole, the gray Svalbard Global Seed Vault stores 850,000 seed samples collected from all around the globe. These seed are vital for food supply and biodiversity whenever there’s a doomsday catastrophe in the future, and that’s why it need to be safeguarded inside the frozen mountains. It’s a bit scary to imagine, but there do exist possibility of nuclear war, disastrous climate change or crippling disease.
This is serious. Images with the barren Arctic background might look like some weird movie set of secret base, but this abrupt tall rectangular building actually serves as the key to the earth’s backup of biodiversity. Behind the steel doors, a long tunnel leads to series of quiet, concrete rooms. Thousands of black boxes piled upon row after row of shelves, keeping countless sleeping seeds in heat-sealed silver packets.
Crop Trust is the company which built the seed vault in 2008 and runs it. On its website it says, “The purpose of the Vault is to store duplicates (backups) of seed samples from the world’s crop collections. It will secure, for centuries, millions of seeds representing every important crop variety available in the world today. It is the final back up.”
However, less than a decade after the vault’s opening, officials are now preparing to withdraw seeds for the first time. And the reason for this early consumption? The Syrian civil war.
“We did not expect a retrieval this early,” Crop Trust spokesman Brian Lainoff told NPR. “But we knew in 2008 that Syria was in for an interesting couple of years. This is why we urged them to deposit so early on.”
In the cruel ongoing war, over 250,000 people have been killed, and millions of others are homeless. It’s reported that researchers requested “samples of wheat, barley and grasses suited for dry regions” for replacing the damaged ones in a gene bank near the Syrian city of Aleppo.
Although there are total 1,700 seed banks around the world, many of them are vulnerable to natural disasters, war and various mundane hazards. In comparison, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is built and kept in the chilly condition, which ensure the safety and completeness of the samples.
The ICARDA center was displaced by the conflict during the civil war, just like many of other significant institutions did. Therefore, in the process, in total 325 boxes of duplicate seeds were send to Svalbard seeking for protection. Since the organization now managed to resettled in Beirut, they wants some samples back.
But in a way the vault isn’t just for catastrophes. ‘‘We’re not people who run around with signs saying ‘Repent, the end is near.’ . . . You don’t have to have some kind of global catastrophe for this thing to be useful,’’ Fowler told the Atlantic in 2012. “We’re losing biodiversity right now, and it isn’t necessarily because of some global catastrophe.’’
The government of Norway owns the facility and take most of the construction and operational costs, but all countries are welcome to store their seeds here for free. Still, it doesn’t mean there’s no restriction. According to the rules, no genetically modified seeds are allowed to be kept at the agricultural Noah’s Ark.
But the vault is not that frightening at all. When asked about the visitors, Fowler answered: “Oh yeah. The surprising thing about the visitors is how many artists we’ve had come up and try to take a look at it. I get the sense that the seed vault must be the subject of many different art projects. Now it’s not a tourist attraction; we don’t just open it up for people all the time.”