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Photos courtesy of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.

The Arctic Doomsday Vault Might Save Our Food Future

Helen Nianias

Helen Nianias

In the snowy Arctic tundra sits an imposing edifice that food scientists hope could protect the future for food security. Could a seed vault in Norway really save us from climate-change-induced famine?

Photos courtesy of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.

If you think Santa's workshop was the only mysterious megastore near the North Pole, you're wrong. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is not only an impressive feat of engineering, but the key to worldwide food security—just in case the four horsemen of the apocalypse decide to do their best work on the world's crops.

It has space for over 4 million seed samples, and in the ten years since the idea for the Seed Vault first germinated it has already amassed 800,000 different varieties, which is one third of the seeds currently in existence. If climate change threatens the world's present supply of food, we want in on this.

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And, while the work the Seed Vault does is vital, there's also a fog of mystery around the whole project that has really sparked some of the world's brightest crackpot minds to concoct far-out conspiracy theories. It's built into the mountains on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, which is just 800 miles from the North Pole. That, plus the mysterious location, and the fact that Bill Gates is a backer, and the fact that it's closed off to the public for absolutely understandable security reasons, has got the internet's best and brightest on the case. The most conspiratorially inclined cite that the Rockerfeller Foundation's involvement definitely means it's a Nazi eugenics project, but the one that goes along the lines of "something something project to control the population" is pretty good, too.

These theories are enough to make David Icke wince but, at its root, this project is more about crop variety than the Illuminati. (Sorry, Reptilians.) Many theorists point out that there are a bunch of other seed vaults around the world—enough to repopulate the planet should the worst happen—but Grethe Helene Evjen, Senior Advisor at the Norwegian Ministry of Agriculture and Food, explains that it was largely created because most seed vaults are south of the equator. "It's a security policy to keep them far apart," she says. "Svalbard's not easily accessible, so it's regarded as a safe place and away from the other gene banks of the world."

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Grethe Helene Evjen.

But why Svalbard? Surely it could be pretty much anywhere in the world? "We planned the seed vault for very long-term, so the seeds will survive or keep their ability to germinate much better if they are kept in a cold place, below zero and [staying] dry. They can be kept a very, very long time," Grethe explains. "We don't know how long yet; we haven't really measured it precisely, but there are some seeds that have been kept for thousands of years in airtight, dry, and cold conditions."

The need for coolness is taken so seriously that the 1,000-square-meter vault is actually built inside a mountain for consistently freezing temperatures, with additional coolers built in. The vault holds 500 seeds of each plant, which have been carefully stored in aluminium bags, labeled, sent off to Svalbard, X-rayed by the scientists in Norway, and then packed in small plastic boxes, which helps create space and keep the samples cool. While nobody works there full-time, the centre has a 24-hour-a-day team of locals who check up on the building, that the electricity's still working, and that everything's exactly as it should be. It's also built 130 metres above sea level and is secured with bolts and spray concrete to make it as indestructible as possible. Little wonder it's been nicknamed the Doomsday Vault.

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And with a UN report saying that climate change poses a threat to food supplies, we'd better hope the seeds do keep. "Eventual change in climate is the main threat—that's a threat to the production in many parts of the world and most agricultural areas," says Grethe. "It will mean a different environment for the production of crops, and we'll have developed and stored different types of seeds that could thrive in a new type of climate. The seed vault represents the huge diversity.

Grethe adds, "What's most important is that each seed can contribute to food security—for farmers, breeders, and researchers to develop climate-adapted seeds."

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On top of all this, the explosion in the planet's population has to be catered for. Thinktank Population Matters estimates that there's a 70 percent chance the number of people on Earth will jump from 7 billion today to 11 billion in 2100. That's an awful lot of mouths to feed. "It will create more need for food and agricultural land. There isn't much possibility of increasing the area of agricultural land, but we have to increase the production somehow," says Grethe.

And the researchers at the vault will have to improve varieties and create locally adapted varieties for the climate, too, right? "Yes," Grethe says. "How the seeds respond to light and temperature is important to reach the goal of providing enough food for all of us."

If the weather continues to get warmer and wetter, for example, there will likely be more diseases attacking crops in the field. "So then we will look for genes that are resistant to these types of new diseases that will develop," Grethe says. "Maybe we can't find them in the crops that we're currently using, so maybe we have to look in different places, like their 'relatives' to find genes that are resistant."

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This isn't paranoid fantasy—there's historical precedent for this level of care. The Irish potato famine that started in 1845 killed 1 million people, and caused another million to emigrate. "They had to go back to South America to find another species of potato that had a resistant gene," says Grethe.

But climate change isn't the only issue, as monocrops pose a big problem for biodiversity, too. "I think that if everybody's using the same type of crop varieties all over the world, it's a risk," says Grethe. "If the diseases and the pests change their pattern and the way they work, and move from one part of the world to another, and come into an environment that could have a big impact on the identical crops, then there could very easily be a disaster. But of course, we have a lot more knowledge now and we have more scientists and access to the seed vault. Hopefully, we'll manage much better."

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While the work is very serious stuff, the design of the building makes it look like a beacon of hope, too. The front is partly lit but also reflects the polar light to give the centre and its surrounding mountains an ethereal glow. "It really lights up like a jewel in the dark Arctic night," says Grethe. "It's really beautiful."

No doubt the conspiracy theorists have some amazing idea about the Illuminati illuminating the Norwegian Arctic, but for most of us, it represents an incredible attempt to keep the world's bellies full.