'Doomsday' Seed Vault Opens in the Arctic

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The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, nicknamed "the doomsday seed vault" by some, aims to preserve samples of seeds from around the world to protect the planet's crop diversity. The frozen vault has begun accepting seeds for storage.

The structure is located near the village of Longyearbyen, Svalbard, a group of islands nearly 1,000 kilometers north of mainland Norway. The vault was dug into the side of a mountain and is surrounded by permafrost and thick rock.

Cary Fowler, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, says the opening of the seed vault "marks a historic turning point in safeguarding the world's crop diversity."

'Doomsday' Seed Vault Opens

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Workers carry boxes of seeds into the Svalbard Global Seed Vault after its official opening on Feb. i

Workers carry boxes of seeds into the Svalbard Global Seed Vault after its official opening on Feb. 26. The facility is located near Longyearbyen, Norway, on an island in the Arctic Ocean. Daniel Sannum Lauten/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Daniel Sannum Lauten/AFP/Getty Images
Workers carry boxes of seeds into the Svalbard Global Seed Vault after its official opening on Feb.

Workers carry boxes of seeds into the Svalbard Global Seed Vault after its official opening on Feb. 26. The facility is located near Longyearbyen, Norway, on an island in the Arctic Ocean.

Daniel Sannum Lauten/AFP/Getty Images
The newly inaugurated Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway now holds more than 100 million seeds. i

The vault now holds more than 100 million seeds. Mari Tefre/Global Crop Diversity Trust hide caption

itoggle caption Mari Tefre/Global Crop Diversity Trust
The newly inaugurated Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway now holds more than 100 million seeds.

The vault now holds more than 100 million seeds.

Mari Tefre/Global Crop Diversity Trust
The seed bank's 130-yard-long tunnel leads to three storage rooms. i

The seed bank's 130-yard-long tunnel leads to three storage rooms. Each one can hold about 1.5 million small packets of seeds. Mari Tefre/Global Crop Diversity Trust hide caption

itoggle caption Mari Tefre/Global Crop Diversity Trust
The seed bank's 130-yard-long tunnel leads to three storage rooms.

The seed bank's 130-yard-long tunnel leads to three storage rooms. Each one can hold about 1.5 million small packets of seeds.

Mari Tefre/Global Crop Diversity Trust

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is designed to safeguard more than 2 billion seeds in case of natural or manmade disaster.

Located on a Norwegian island in the Arctic Ocean near the village of Longyearbyen, the vault is built into permafrost deep inside a mountain. It opened Tuesday, with 75 boxes of seeds.

Norway owns the facility — nicknamed the "Doomsday Vault" — and the Global Crop Diversity Trust is funding the seed collection.

Cary Fowler, the group's executive director, says the world is losing a significant amount of diversity "on a daily basis."

"When a crop variety becomes extinct, we lose the ability to use any unique trait that it might have in the future. So if it turns out that one of those crop varieties held the key to resistance to a particular insect pest or disease, or was really heat tolerant and could be used in the future to help us adapt to climate change, then it's sort of tough luck," Fowler tells Melissa Block.

The three storage rooms inside the vault are sealed behind air-tight doors and kept at a temperature below zero. Each one can hold about 1.5 million small packages of seeds.

The seeds that are viable for the shortest amount of time — lettuce, for example — can stay healthy for about 50 years, Fowler says.

But at the other extreme, experimental results suggest that other seeds — such as sorghum — could be safely stored in these conditions for nearly 20,000 years.

Monitoring of the seed vault will take place electronically — and no one will work at the site physically on a day-to-day basis.

Fowler says the seed vault's annual operating cost will be about $150,000.

"We think that's about the cheapest insurance policy anybody can imagine for the world's most valuable natural resource," he says.

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