Norway Marks Seed Vault Opening

Doug Mellgren in Longyearbyen, Norway
Associated Press
February 26, 2008
A "doomsday" seed vault built to protect millions of food crops from climate change, wars, and natural disasters opened Tuesday deep within an Arctic mountain in the remote Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard.

(See video of the opening.)

"The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is our insurance policy," Norway's Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg told delegates at the opening ceremony. "It is the 'Noah's Ark' for securing biological diversity for future generations."

(See new photos of the vault.)

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai of Kenya were among the dozens of guests who had bundled up for the ceremony inside the vault, about 425 feet (130 meters) deep inside a frozen mountain.

"This is a frozen Garden of Eden," Barroso said.

Arctic Air-Conditioning

The vault will serve as a backup for hundreds of other seed banks worldwide. It has the capacity to store 4.5 million seed samples from around the world and shield them from man-made and natural disasters.

(Related story: "Doomsday" Vault Will End Crop Extinction, Expert Says [December 27, 2007])

Dug into the permafrost of the mountain, it has been built to withstand an earthquake or a nuclear strike.

Norway owns the vault in Svalbard, a frigid archipelago about 620 miles (1,000 kilometers) from the North Pole.

Other countries can deposit seeds without charge and reserve the right to withdraw them upon need.

The operation is funded by the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which was founded by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization and Biodiversity International, a Rome-based research group.

"Crop diversity will soon prove to be our most potent and indispensable resource for addressing climate change, water, and energy supply constraints, and for meeting the food needs of a growing population," said Cary Fowler, head of the Global Crop Diversity Trust.

Svalbard is cold, but giant air conditioning units have chilled the vault further to -0.4 Fahrenheit (-18 Celsius), a temperature at which experts say many seeds could last for a thousand years.

Stoltenberg and Maathai delivered the first box of seeds to the vault during the opening ceremony—a container of rice seeds from 104 countries.

Carrots to Wheat

"This is unique. This is very visionary. It is a precaution for the future," Maathai, a Crop Diversity Trust board member, told the Associated Press after the ceremony.

The seeds are packed in silvery foil containers—as many as 500 in each sample—and placed on blue and orange metal shelves inside three 32-foot-by-88-foot (10-meter-by-28-meter) storage chambers. Each vault can hold 1.5 million sample packages of all types of crop seeds, from carrots to wheat.

Construction leader Magnus Bredeli-Tveiten said the vault is designed to withstand earthquakes—successfully tested by a 6.2 magnitude temblor off Svalbard last week—and even a direct nuclear strike.

Other seed banks are in less protected areas. War wiped out seed banks in Iraq and Afghanistan, and one in the Philippines was flooded after a typhoon in 2006.

Copyright 2008 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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