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Unveiling the Doomsday Vault Design
Sarah Rich, 9 Feb 07
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Some of you may recall the announcement early last year about plans to erect a "doomsday vault" -- a secure, industrial-strength seedbank on an island between mainland Norway and the North Pole, designed to protect the world's crop diversity in the event of massive planetary disaster. According to a New Scientist piece from January 2006:

It is being built to safeguard the world's food supply against nuclear war, climate change, terrorism, rising sea levels, earthquakes and the ensuing collapse of electricity supplies. "If the worst came to the worst, this would allow the world to reconstruct agriculture on this planet," says Cary Fowler, director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, an independent international organisation promoting the project.

Since then, the world has gotten warmer, climate change has been scientifically proven to be human-caused, and designers have completed their plans for the Svalbard International Seed Vault. Construction will begin almost immediately, with opening slated for 2008.

We've been thinking quite a bit lately about the ties between global warming and agriculture, knowing that we face challenges not only in terms of the extermination of crop species from climate change, but in terms of the fact that several decades from now, seeds that once grew easily in a particular area may no longer be viable due to changes in weather and soil. Of the three million seed samples that will be stored in Svalbard, one wonders which will, in the event of catastrophe, be able to supply us with food in an unpredictable environment.

But without preserving these millions of crop seeds, we risk heading into the future with a fatal lack of preparedness. In today's BBC News, the GCDT director, Cary Fowler, was once again quoted, asking:

"Can you imagine an effective, efficient, sustainable response to climate change, water shortages, food security issues without what is going to go in the vault? It is the raw material of agriculture."

In order to be certain that the vault will hold up against the very disasters it's being built for, the structure will be set 120m (364ft) inside of a mountain, where permafrost can act as a natural refrigerator in the event of mechanical failure. Planners ran drastic climate change modelling scenarios, projecting 200 years into the future and factoring in potential increases in water levels due to melting ice from pole to pole.

Unlike other seed banks which generally serve the region surrounding their site, store a limited number of seeds, and undergo relatively frequent interchange with staff, Svalbard will be a true vault which will lock up the planet's genetic material for maximum security and minimal human contact. The vault will be inspected annually for any maintenance issues, but otherwise, as Fowler says, "If you design a facility to be used in worst-case scenarios, then you cannot actually have too much dependency on human beings."

Much as the name "Doomsday Vault" and the idea of preparation against disasters of the magnitude we're envisioning can give us a sense of, well, doom, the Svalbard International Seed Vault should give us reason to feel hopeful -- this is a global insurance policy for our food supply; something from which we may all benefit in the future.


[images from BBC News]

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I think the whole idea of this vault is tremendously naive and ridiculous.

As much as we'd like to believe, there is no insurance policy for climate change. This all assumes that you can go back to your trusty seed vault, make a withdrawal, and stick it back in the ground as if nothing happened. If such events occurred, WE'RE TALKING ABOUT GLOBAL CLIMATE CHANGE. The land areas suitable for agriculture would be different; the soil types, microclimates and diurnal cycles would not match our existing crop lands.

Of course, over time the non-cultivated plants and ecosystems will adapt. The question is, will we?

Posted by: ACL on 9 Feb 07

Maybe we should just work to change the way we are currently living, and repair the damage we've done. Stop using pesticides, fertilizer, GMOs, and fossil fuels, maybe??

Posted by: Katherina on 9 Feb 07

Well ACL, the idea is that by storing an extremely diverse range of seed samples, you'll be able to find a crop to match the conditions. Obviously it won't necessarily be the same crop that we historically grew there (and there was no implication of such in the article).

Global climate change is a fact of life, and we're going to need to adapt to it instead of just throwing up our arms. Even if we reduce our GHG emissions to pre-industrial levels, the ones we've already put out will continue heating the earth for many centuries to come.

Posted by: Andrew Leinonen on 9 Feb 07

If a form of planning and foresight can be conceived of realistically, then it's more naive not to plan. Sometimes the act itself can be of intrinsic value. Planning is never a substitute for immediate action, only an additional step. What is such an effort taking away from other short-term efforts? If anything, its addition of symbolic urgency becomes important as a catalyst for short-term efforts as well.

- Heath

Posted by: Heath M Rezabek on 9 Feb 07

This is an idea I have been interested in ever since Jamais first mentioned it to me. And while this is perhaps largely a symbolic gesture regarding the seeds themselves, symbolic gestures are important too.

Posted by: Howard Berkey on 9 Feb 07

I'm not at all convinced it's symbolic. If serious unexpected disaster unfolds, we'll be really glad someone thought to store a bunch of seeds.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 10 Feb 07

Why on earth would anyone put their future in someone else's hands yet again. Look where it got us so far. Every time we have trusted in our governments to protect us we have come across lies and deception, corruption and a climate that will soon wipe us out. Who will have the combination? What happens if all of them are wiped out? Who or what is the back up then? Who is going to go get them and bring them back. Chances are we won't have any modes of transportation when this disaster eventually hits. What will they demand from us for the seeds? Come on people we are responsible for our own futures. Save your own seeds. Protect yourselves by making changes now. ONE of the largest reasons for the climate changing is GMO agriculture practices. Are these the seeds they will save? Nothing with nutritional value? Plants that will only grow in a couple of zones? Crap that they have decided is food. We are the ones that have to decide what to do YOU are your future not some group that claims they will save you. Start your own seed bank in you local area and create the potential for more opportunities for youselves and your loved ones who will obviously not prosper from this empty promise in the middle of nowhere.

Posted by: Angela on 13 Feb 07

Okay, so, there's a good chance that with global warming the whole planet could eventually become a big oven and bake us, all. On the other hand, there's an equally good chance that once the ice caps melt and the ocean currents generated by the sinking cold water at the poles are essentially eliminated, the earth could go into another ice age (which, according to the latest climate models, would only take about 10 years to occur). At that point, won't this seed bank be under a couple of mile of ice? What about multiple site redundancy? Maybe they/we should build another one a little further south, too.

Posted by: J.A. West on 19 Feb 07



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