A ‘DOOMSDAY vault’ buried deep in the Arctic to preserve seeds of almost every crop on Earth in the event of a catastrophe has been opened earlier than expected.
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a seed bank nestled in the Arctic Archipelago, was created to protect millions of food crops from climate change, wars and natural disasters, as a backup for humanity.
But officials this week confirmed scientists have withdrawn from the Norwegian government operated bank — known as the ‘doomsday vault’ — for the first time since it started in February, 2008.
The move comes after scientists ceased full operations at leading gene bank, the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) in Aleppo, Syria, as a result of the bloody conflict in the war-torn country.
ICARDA was used to develop new strains of drought and heat resistant wheat.
In recent years, the scientists started recovering their critical inventory of seeds, sourced from around the Middle East and beyond, and safekeeping them beneath the Arctic ice, just 1,300 kilometres from the North Pole.
Gene banks and organisations around the world have deposited about 860,000 samples of seeds at the Global Seed Vault to back up their own collections in case of man-made or natural calamities.
In secret shipments last month, about 38,000 seed samples including wheat, barley, lentil and chickpea were sent from Norway to be planted at research stations in Morocco and Lebanon operated ICARDA, as facilities in Syria were no longer viable.
The plan was to resume the research they’ve been doing for decades, away from the barrel bombs of Aleppo.
Syrian army backed by Iranian fighters advances south of Aleppo
Nearly two-thirds of the specimens withdrawn last month were unique varieties of ancient crops from across the Middle East and Africa.
They will be used by ICARDA to fulfil requests for crop diversity from breeders, researchers and farmers around the world, so they can develop and test new strains to cope with a changing climate and new diseases.
ICARDA Director-General Mahmoud El-Solh said:
“We can get, through crossing and breeding, traits that are tolerant to drought, tolerant to heat, tolerant to specific diseases and so forth.”
Global Crop Diversity Trust (which funded the shipments) spokesman Michael Koch said the operation proved “that the global system of fail-safe backup works”.
The shipments were conducted secretly to avoid any security problems.
“We wanted to make sure that the publicity around this deposit is not taken by someone for different purposes,” Mr Koch said.
Located on the outskirts of Longyearbyen, the main town in the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, the grey concrete entrance to the vault blends into the wilderness.
Perched on the side of a mountain, a door leads the rare visitor down a 120-meter-long tunnel into the mountain.
“Visitors see it as a James Bond kind of place, as extraordinary,” Mr Koch said.
Recent visitors include several US senators and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
The last of the seeds were sent to Svalbard in July 2012 at the height of the fighting in Aleppo when ICARDA’s facilities were no longer able to duplicate or distribute its active collection.
Today, the site struggles along with a small staff of dedicated people who must navigate complicated power shifts among opposing Syrian factions, while dealing with limited resources.
So far, it appears that the cold, the travel, and time haven’t damaged the seeds, officials said. Those delivered to the Morocco gene bank will be sown in the coming season.
NordGen director Arni Bragason said it was “wonderful to see the vault is already proving its worth and that we have been able to help our friends in the Middle East to continue their vital work”.