It was about 5 degrees Fahrenheit (-15 degrees Celsius) outside as reporters were allowed in Monday for a sneak peak. But it was colder inside. Giant air conditioning units have chilled the vault to just below zero degrees Fahrenheit (-18 degrees Celsius), a temperature at which experts say many seeds could survive for a thousand years.
Inside the concrete entrance, decorated for the opening with an ice sculpture of a polar bear, a roughly 400-foot-long (120-meter-long) tunnel of steel and concrete leads to three separate 32-by-88-foot chambers where the seeds will be stored.
The first 600 boxes—12 tons of seeds—already have arrived from 20 seed banks around the world, Norwegian Agriculture Minister Terje Riis-Johansen said. The first 75 boxes were to be carried into the vault by guests as part of the opening ceremony.
The seeds are packed in silvery foil packets—as many as 500 in each sample—and will be placed on blue and orange metal shelves inside the vault. Each chamber can hold 1.5 million packets holding all types of crop seeds, from carrots to wheat.
Construction leader Magnus Bredeli-Tveiten said the vault has been designed to withstand earthquakes—successfully tested by a 6.2 magnitude temblor off Svalbard last week—and even a direct nuclear strike.
Even if power fails and cuts off the air conditioning, the permafrost insulating the vault would help keep the seeds "cold for 200 years even in the worst case climate scenario," Fowler said.
He expects the vault's life span to rival that of Egypt's ancient pyramids.
"So much of the value of Svalbard is that it is so far away from the dangers" that affect many other parts of the globe, Fowler said. The archipelago is about 300 miles (nearly 500 kilometers) north of the Norwegian mainland.
Fowler called the vault an insurance policy against the unthinkable. "It's like you get in your car in the morning and drive to the office. You don't expect to get into a car accident, but you buy insurance anyway."
The vault is protected by armed guards, but their rifles aren't meant only to discourage uninvited humans from coming too close.
"My job is to keep away people who aren't supposed to be here—and guard against polar bears," vault worker Jimmy Olsen said, standing outside the entrance with a rifle slung on his shoulder. There are an estimated 3,000 polar bears on the islands.
Norway has received praise from around the world for building the seed bank. FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf on Monday called it "one of the most innovative and impressive acts in the service of humanity."
But the world spotlight worries some locals, who treasure the isolation of living in the Arctic.
"We like to be here a little bit for ourselves," said Kai Tredal, 42, one of the roughly 2,000 people in Svalbard's main town, Longyearbyen.
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