The name alone makes it sound like a relict from the Cold War or something out of a Bond film: it is referred to as the “Doomsday Vault” and housed in an icy steel and concrete bunker, more than one hundred metres deep inside the mountain permafrost of an Arctic archipelago. Yet the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is man’s latest attempt to create a latter-day Noah’s Ark, or insurance policy, for the planet in the event of a catastrophe such as devastating climate change induced by global warming.
After decades of planning and construction work, the vault will officially start operating tomorrow. As the world’s first global seed bank, it has the capacity to hold up to 4.5 million batches of seeds from all the known varieties of the planet’s main food crops.
The vault cost €6m to construct and has been built to withstand nuclear missile attacks and even dramatic rises in sea levels that would result from both the Greenland and Antarctic ice shelves melting simultaneously.
The vault aims to make it possible to re-establish crops and plants should they disappear from their natural environment or be wiped out by major disasters. Cary Fowler, of the Global Crop Diversity Trust which set up the project together with Norway’s Nordic Gene Bank yesterday described the vault as the “perfect place” for seed storage.
The vault is made up of three large, airtight, refrigerated cold-storage chambers which are housed in a long trident-shaped tunnel bored through a layer of permafrost in to a mountain of sandstone and limestone on the archipelago.
Norway’s Svalbard’s islands lie some 620 miles south of the North Pole deep inside the Arctic circle. No trees grow on the archipelago, which is home to some 2,300 people. It was selected because of its inhospitable climate and remoteness. The average winter temperature on Svalbard is around minus 14C. The vault is protected by high walls of fortified concrete, doors armoured with steel plate and a home guard of free-roaming polar bears.
“The facility is designed to hold twice as many varieties of agricultural crops as we think exist,” said Mr Fowler, “It will not be filled up in my lifetime nor in my grandchildren’s lifetime, but at these temperatures, seeds for important crops like wheat, barley and peas can last for 1,000 years,” he added.
The permafrost and rocks surrounding the tunnels are meant to ensure the seed samples remain frozen, even if the plant’s refrigeration system fails and global warming raises the outside temperature. “It is an insurance policy for the planet,” Mr Carey said.
Tomorrow, when Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, and the Nobel Peace Prize-winning environmentalist Wangari Maathai arrive in Svalbard for the project’s inauguration, the vault will contain some 250,000 seed samples.
Scientists involved in the project pointed out yesterday that some of the world’s biodiversity had already been lost as a result of war or natural disaster. Gene vaults have disappeared in Iraq and Afghanistan following the US invasion and seed banks in the Philippines and Honduras fell to natural disasters.
The Svalbard vault already appears to have survived its first environmental test. Last Thursday what was described as “the biggest earthquake in Norway’s history” – a tremor with a magnitude of 6.2 – was registered near the archipelago.