by Nathan Devlin
It has been called a modern day Noah’s Ark. It has also been called the Doomsday Vault. But the truth about the Svalbard Global Seed Vault lies somewhere in between.
The vault was built by the Norwegian government to safeguard the world’s food supply should the worst of global warming predictions come to pass.
The vault opened February 26th. Constructed deep inside a mountain on Svalbard Island and surrounded by permafrost, 300 metres above sea-level and maintained at a constant temperature of -18 C, every conceivable safeguard against global warming was taken.
Should the earth superheat and the oceans rise, the permafrost will keep the seeds frozen for 200 years, and the location will keep them dry forever. The only threat to the vault is the occasional polar bear that hangs about the entrance.
From above, the vault looks exactly like the devil's pitchfork. Viewing a video of the vault, the first thing you’ll notice is the bare, concrete walls. As you travel the 120-meter long subway-like tunnel, on your way to the three 1200 cubic-meter storage areas, hundreds of blue floodlights will guide you.
Those massive storage areas don’t look much different from a typical Costco. Blue and red shelves hold grayish, briefcase shaped containers. And in those containers is the earth’s best agricultural safeguard against global warming.
Conceived by American planet scientist Cary Fowler over 30 years ago, the actual construction of the vault took a mere 10 months to complete. When asked during a press conference why the vault took so long to build, Fowler answers that he “was paid by the hour.”
In truth, legal troubles played a big role in holding up construction. Though the vault is owned and maintained by the Norwegian government, they do not own the actual seeds. Rather, the countries (or people) that donate seeds to the vault retain ownership.
Mediating between the conflicting desires of the commercial seed industry and the governments of the third-world countries that possess the majority of the earth’s seeds took over a decade.
It was only with the ratification of the 2004 International Treaty for Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture that planning for the Svalbard Global Seed Vault began. One day the vault will be home to seeds of every known variety of crops on the planet, with priority given to food crops important to human diets such as wheat and barley.
According to the Norwegian government, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault “offers fail-safe protection for one of the most important natural resources on earth.”
Not quiet Noah’s Ark, since this particular ark is home to seeds and not animals. And not quiet a doomsday vault either, since humans can't survive in a deep freeze for long. But certainly a wise precaution, built by this generation on behalf of all future generations.