But as the fighting intensified, they were forced to leave behind their gene bank, one of the world’s most valuable collections of seeds, containing some of the oldest varieties of wheat and barley. ICARDA re-established its headquarters in Morocco and Lebanon, and restarted the gene bank in 2015 using seeds from the Svalbard vault—the first-ever withdrawal there. Woken from their icy slumber, the seeds were planted in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley and in Morocco, and their offspring were carefully collected and processed to return to the vault. In late February, ICARDA returned the varieties of seeds it had taken out. “These seeds have come full circle,” Lainoff explains.
The Global Seed Vault has been dubbed the “doomsday” vault, which conjures up an image of a reserve of seeds for use in case of an apocalyptic event or a global catastrophe. But it is the much smaller, localized destruction and threats facing gene banks all over the world that the vault was designed to protect against—and it’s why the vault was opened in February, when TIME visited.
On this occasion, samples from India, Pakistan and Mexico were being deposited alongside seeds from Syria, many of whose citizens are living through their own apocalypse. “There are big and small doomsdays going on around the world every day. Genetic material is being lost all over the globe,” says Marie Haga, executive director of the Crop Trust. This past winter offered the gene bank a chance to redress the balance.
There are three vaults leading off from the chamber, but only one is currently in use, and its door is covered in a thick layer of ice, hinting at the subzero temperatures inside. In here, the seeds are stored in vacuum-packed silver packets and test tubes in large boxes that are neatly stacked on floor-to-ceiling shelves. They have very little monetary value, but the boxes potentially hold the keys to the future of global food security.
Its only neighbor is a similar repository buried away from the dangers of the world: the Arctic World Archive, which aims to preserve data for the world’s governments and private institutions, opened deep in a nearby mine on March 27.
The entrance leads to a small tunnel-like room filled with the loud whirring noise of electricity and cooling systems required to keep the temperature within the vault consistent. Through one door is a wide concrete tunnel illuminated by strip lighting leading 430 ft. down into the mountain. At the end of this corridor is a chamber, an added layer of security to protect the vaults containing the seeds.
Near the entrance to the facility, a rectangular wedge of concrete that juts out starkly against the snowy landscape, the doomsday nickname seems eerily apt. It was precisely for its remoteness that Svalbard was chosen as the location of the vault. “It is away from the places on earth where you have war and terror, everything maybe you are afraid of in other places. It is situated in a safe place,” says Bente Naeverdal, a property manager who oversees the day-to-day operation of the vault.
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is carved into a hillside above Longyearbyen airport, 130 meters above sea level.
When the Svalbard Global Seed Vault opened to receive seed samples from the world’s gene banks, it received enormous attention .
Despite the global pandemic, genebanks efforts to secure duplicate seed samples at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault are still ongoing. .
We offer safe, free and long-term storage of seed duplicates from all genebanks and nations participating in the global community’s .
All gene banks holding sustainable seed collections are invited to deposit duplicates of their seeds in the Svalbard Global Seed .
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