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Seed vault: A refrigerator for eternity

Like valuable jewels, plant seeds will be guarded in a treasury in everlasting ice for future mankind. A invaluable nest-egg worth its weight many times in gold in 200 years time.

This is how the Arctic Seed Vault will be buried in the mountains on Norways island of Svalbard
Picture by Statsbygg/Croptrust

Extinct like dinosaurs! This is what recently happened to the Chinese freshwater-dolphin, which was to be found solely in the Jangtse River. Numerous varieties of plants are also disappearing for ever, sometimes because of natural selection that occurs in nature. But humans are also partly guilty, by destroying the habitat of other terrestrials or eradicating natural varieties of fruit and vegetables in the hunt for a bigger harvest.

According to a study in around 1800 there were still 7100 different varieties of apples in North America alone. Not 300 of these remain today. The rest have disappeared forever from our planet: varieties which do not produce sugar-sweet giant fruits with a long shelf-life, but which, for example, fare better with drought, fungal infections, insect attacks or to much moisture. Some of them thrive in sandy or rocky ground. Some contain specific active substances, which do not exist at all in others. The same applies for vital staple foods such as wheat, barley, corn, rice and potatoes. There are 100,000 different types of rice alone worldwide. Each of them has quite special, sometimes unresearched properties.

Even the different centres of sunflowers must be protected in the seed-vault at Svalbard
Picture by T. Micke

Modern genetic engineering cannot by any means replace what nature has been testing and has determined as good (because of its success) for thousands of years. For this very reason, years ago prudent scientists, like those on the project Arche Noah in Castle Schiltern in Lower Austria, started to collect the seeds of such wild ancient plants which were perhaps at first glance not worth protecting. Their genetic code is a treasure that perhaps in just 100 years will make new crossings possible, which can survive the changing climatic conditions on our earth.

Now an international foundation ("Global Crop Diversity Trust") has made it its business to create the biggest worldwide collection of seeds with more than 3 million samples in an ice-cold treasury in the north of Europe. The foundation’s director Carry Fowler said in an interview: "Countries like Germany, America, but also India and Ethiopia belong to the financial investors of this project, as well as private individuals. Austria is unfortunately not yet part. We have been looking for a long time for a location that is well protected from war, earthquakes, acts of sabotage, rising sea levels and global warming and found it on the Svalbard (Svalbard) island group that belongs to Norway, 1000 kilometres north of the mainland."

Even the free ranging polar bears on the Norwegian island group Svalbard will be guarding the Seed Vault
Picture by Global Crop Diversity Trust

Here, near the hamlet of Longyearbyen, where for four months of the year icy darkness reigns, an underground giant treasury has recently been started, which will be dug into the side of a sandstone mountain using a lug and which is already ideal as an eternal refrigerator because of the deep-frozen ground. The islands will be approached by a line machine once a day, which will gradually deliver the precious cargo from smaller seed depots all over the world. The construction is then automatically cooled to between -10 and -20 degrees. In the event of a malfunction, a post in Longyearbyen and the centre in Norway are alerted immediately via radio and satellite. But even with a disconnected system, as the experts have calculated, the surrounding cold should be enough to keep the plant seeds below freezing for years.

"We have even taken on climate experts to calculate how high the sea level could reach at worst case scenario in 200 years. It isn't pretty, but unfortunately a necessary scenario if we want to safely protect this treasure." Naturally the treasury in the mountain will also be watched over. Carry Fowler: "We have security personnel, but also some unpaid, natural guards. On Svalbard there are a whole host of polar bears, who will do their bit to scare off unwelcome visitors." What an irony of fate: only the endangered polar bear will help humans to watch over the seeds that are threatened with extinction...

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© A report by Tobias Micke (11-01-07) – Contact