for National Geographic News
Deep in Norway's frozen Svalbard archipelago sits a high-tech facility that could save the world.
If global catastrophes like asteroid impacts or disease pandemics were to strike, seeds stored in this first ever "doomsday" vault would ensure that humans could regrow the crops needed for survival.
But the vault can also save us from a more gradual disaster: Every day little-known crop varieties are going extinct.
These crops, researchers say, are the raw genetic materials needed for breeders to adapt the global food supply to survive climate change, water and energy shortages, and even shifts in food preferences.
(Related news: "Farming Claims Almost Half Earth's Land, New Maps Show" [December 9, 2005].)
"[Crop diversity] is quite a necessity if we want to continue to have wheat and rice and broccoli to put on the table," said Cary Fowler, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust in Rome, Italy.
The trust is the leading force behind the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a repository built by the Norwegian government to store backup copies of as many as three million different crop varieties. (See pictures of Svalbard and the new vault.)
The vault, carved into a mountainside on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, will open for storage in February 2008 (see a map of Norway).
"What it's going to do is put an end to extinction [of] agricultural crops," Fowler said.
"That's not really going to excite the person walking down the street today, but boy, for me, that's a profound statement."
Banks at Risk
The Svalbard project is a global version of a seed bank, a concept that has been around since the 1920s.
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