Syria war spurs opening of ‘doomsday’ Arctic seed vault

As Aleppo gene bank built to safeguard global food supplies is at risk, researchers request frozen seeds from Svalbard.

Svalbard seed vault
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault was built to protect millions of food crops from climate change, wars, and natural disasters [AP]

Syria’s civil war has prompted the first withdrawal of seeds from a “doomsday” vault built in an Arctic mountainside to safeguard global food supplies.

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.

“Protecting the world’s biodiversity in this manner is precisely the purpose of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault,” Brian Lainoff, a spokesman for the Crop Trust, which runs the underground storage on a Norwegian island 1,300km from the North Pole, told Reuters on Monday.

Protected from nuclear war

The vault, which opened on the Svalbard archipelago in 2008, is designed to protect crop seeds – such as beans, rice and wheat – against the worst cataclysms of nuclear war or disease.

Svalbard Global Seed Vault
– Located 1,300km beyond the Arctic Circle 
– Total area of 1,000 square metres
– Only the concrete entrance lobby is visible outside
– Capacity to store 4.5 million different seed types 
– Situated in permafrost – soil that remains frozen throughout the year
– Constant vault temperature of 18 degrees Celsius below zero
Source: Norwegian government

It has more than 860,000 samples, from almost all nations. Even if the power were to fail, the vault would stay frozen and sealed for at least 200 years.

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.

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Grethe Evjen, an expert at the Norwegian Agriculture Ministry, said the seeds had been requested by the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA). ICARDA moved its headquarters to Beirut from Aleppo in 2012 because of the war.

ICARDA wants almost 130 boxes out of the 325 it had deposited in the vault, containing a total of 116,000 samples, she told Reuters. They will be sent once paperwork is completed, she said.

It would be the first withdrawal from the vault, she said. Many seeds from the Aleppo collection have traits resistant to drought, which could help breed crops to withstand climate change in dry areas from Australia to Africa.

Syria’s four-year civil war has killed an estimated 250,000 people and driven more than 11 million from their homes, with 7.6 million displaced within Syria.

The vault has the capacity to store 4.5 million seed samples and was built to withstand an earthquake or a nuclear strike [AP]
The vault has the capacity to store 4.5 million seed samples and was built to withstand an earthquake or a nuclear strike [AP]
Source: Reuters