Opened in 2008, Svalbard Global Seed Bank in Norway aims to preserve the genetic diversity of human agriculture amid the threat of major disasters, like the situation in Syria today.
SPITSBERGEN, Norway — A massive Arctic vault that protects the survival of crops essential to human agriculture has been opened for the first time ever to release crucial seeds in response to the Syrian civil war.
The Svalbard Global Seed Bank began operating in 2008 on the island of Spitsbergen, part of Norway’s Svalbard archipelago which sits above the Arctic Circle. Often called the “Doomsday Vault,” it’s designed to keep millions of seeds at temperatures close to 0 Fahrenheit in a structure so heavily fortified it could survive an earthquake or a nuclear strike.
In a 2008 visit, journalist Scott Pelley described the seed bank for the CBS newsmagazine “60 Minutes”:
“From the outside, the vault looks like a concrete wedge pounded into a mountain. But as you walk through the door, you cross from a hostile wasteland into a safe house for humanity.”
The seed bank aims to ensure that copies of 1.5 billion different seeds from around the world can be kept safe from natural and manmade disasters, like devastating weather events or nuclear war. One such disaster is now taking place in Syria, where civil war has threatened the safety and diversity of the region’s food supply, forcing the first ever withdrawal of seeds from the doomsday vault.
“The seeds, including samples of wheat, barley and grasses suited to dry regions, have been requested by researchers elsewhere in the Middle East to replace seeds in a gene bank near the Syrian city of Aleppo that has been damaged by the war.
… The Aleppo seed bank has kept partly functioning, including a cold storage, despite the conflict. But it was no longer able to maintain its role as a hub to grow seeds and distribute them to other nations, mainly in the Middle East.”
The Syrian civil war has had a devastating effect on the region and world. It’s left an estimated 220,000 dead and a staggering 11 million people displaced, triggering a global refugee crisis that’s dramatically worsened in recent months.
It’s also inflaming an already tense relationship between the United States and Russia, as the two countries and their allies disagree about how to handle the Syrian crisis amid a continued struggle for control of the region’s energy resources and competing gas and oil pipeline projects.
These rising tensions, along with a deepening climate change crisis, led the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists to move its famous “Doomsday Clock” to 3 minutes to midnight at the beginning of this year, a sign of how close the Bulletin’s board, which includes 18 Nobel Laureates, considers the world to be to nuclear war.