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Survival of the coldest

Should catastrophe strike the world, a crucial cache of plant varieties would be safe in a 'doomsday vault' in frozen Svalbard.

October 12, 2007|Louise Roug | Times Staff Writer

LONGYEARBYEN, NORWAY — High above the icy fjord, the vault is almost complete. Inside a frozen mountain not far from the North Pole, workers are building three concrete chambers to withstand global warming, floods and fires, wars and nuclear holocaust.

This Arctic safe, nicknamed the "doomsday vault," will protect millions of crop seeds here on the forbidding Svalbard archipelago, the northernmost inhabited spot on the planet. The survival of Earth's agriculture is being entrusted to a land inhospitable to life, where only the toughest plants, animals and humans endure.

At the entrance to the vault, visitors can see glaciers and frozen wilderness shimmering in the distance. Should the bleakest global warming scenario come true -- a total meltdown of Antarctica and the Arctic, swamping the planet as sea levels rise -- the seeds would be sheltered in their cave here, 400 feet above the Advent Fjord.

In case of an electricity blackout, the permafrost ensures that the seeds would remain refrigerated in the state-of-the-art Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Recalling the opening scene of the old "Get Smart" television show, airlocks, steel-reinforced doors and a video-monitoring system operated from Sweden hundreds of miles away are designed to protect the $6-million vault deep inside the mountain.

National seed banks around the world might be devastated by natural disasters or raided in a war, but the remoteness of the Svalbard vault makes it the ultimate safety backup.

"This is a library of life," said Cary Fowler, director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, an international foundation that protects the world's crop seeds. "We'll be taking the knowledge embodied in these genes to fashion new solutions."

Agriculture continually has to adapt to the changing conditions on the planet, be they climate shifts, new pests and diseases, or increasing demand for food as the world's population grows. Earth's biological diversity, however, is facing its worst threat in centuries, brought on by more aggressive farming methods, environmental degradation and changing weather patterns.

In the last century, as much as 75% of the genetic diversity -- hundreds of thousands of plant varieties -- has been lost, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Every day, another plant variety becomes extinct.

"We have a giant puzzle unfolding here," Fowler said. "We don't know what the picture is going to be, so we don't need to be throwing away the pieces, especially when it's so cheap to conserve them and so expensive to lose them."

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Geography is security.

The vault's location on this rugged cluster of islands between the 76th and 81st parallels has been carefully chosen. Fewer than 3,000 settlers, mostly Norwegians and Russians, live in the Arctic archipelago governed by Norway. With rare exceptions, there are no births on the islands -- there are no social services and only limited healthcare -- and those who settle are mostly young and physically fit.

These days, the burgeoning tourism industry fuels the economy of tiny Longyearbyen, but historically it has been a mining town, and hundreds still labor in the coal pits.

During the 1960s and '70s, the Soviet Union built up a solid presence on Svalbard, which can be mined by all 40 signatories to a 1920 international treaty. But with the demise of the Cold War, it withdrew.

Pyramiden, a Soviet-model mining town farther up the Advent Fjord, has been meticulously preserved. On the walls of the barracks where the Soviet workers lived, yellowing photographs bear witness to their harsh life. Lenin's statue still stands on the main square of this ghost town, facing east.

On Svalbard, the rugged life in the mines is giving way to an orderly life of the mind. The scientists are taking over.

A small, newly built university campus in Longyearbyen offers undergraduate courses in Arctic biology, geology, geophysics and technology. It's not uncommon to see undergraduate students, wrapped in many layers of clothing and carrying rifles, setting out toward the mountains for research trips in the tundra.

Because of the threat of polar bears, everyone leaving downtown Longyearbyen is required to carry a rifle. Still, every few years, someone is killed by a bear in the vicinity. Everyone in Longyearbyen has a polar bear story -- often told with Norwegian understatement -- about an encounter with one of the fearsome animals. With the brutally cold winters here, people don't blink when they see someone inside the small bank wearing a ski mask and carrying a gun.

This rugged frontier attracts a tough, self-sufficient bunch difficult to impress with tales of adventure and physical prowess.

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