— Jutting out of snow and ice in a forbidding part of Norway like the monolith in “2001: A Space Odyssey," the imposing Doomsday Vault literally holds the seeds to the world’s future in the event of global disaster.
Opened in February 2008, the vault houses more than 740,000 different seed samples from around the world, including a recent shipment of 25,000 seeds that originate everywhere from violence-ravaged Syria to the mountains of Tajikistan to the amaranth used in the Ecuadorian “Day of the Dead’’ celebration.
Formerly known as the Svaldbard Global Seed Vault, the Doomsday Vault it serves as the master backup to the world’s other seed vaults. Its stores stand ready to start replenishing the world’s food supply in the event of natural disaster, water shortages, global warming or war.
The vault is dug into the side of Plataberget mountain, near the village of Longyearbyen on a group of islands north of mainland Norway. It is even guarded by a natural security force, because polar bears roam the icy landscape around the facility. It is illegal to leave the local town without bringing a gun along.
Michelle Kosinski of NBC News was given a tour of the remote facility by Cary Fowler, executive director of Global Crop Diversity Trust, who conducted her through the long, icy tunnel leading to the coldest part of the mountain. Drilled straight through 400 feet of permafrost and rock past sets of frozen doors, it warehouses seemingly endless rows of seeds preserved at minus-4 degrees Fahrenheit.
There are more than 100 thousand different types of rice alone in storage. The biggest contributor to the bank is the United States, which is sending 12,801 samples this year.
“This is what is going to allow agriculture to remain productive,’’ Fowler said. “To create food security, to adapt to climate change and water shortages, and everything we might want agriculture to be in the future.’’
The unmanned facility holds seeds that will still be viable 20,000 years from now. Commercial farming has reduced the overall crop diversity in the world, so specific diseases could potentially wipe out a large chunk of production. In that instance, the Doomsday Vault holds seeds to older strains that could be reintroduced, or that might be more resistant to pests, disease and drought.
The Doomsday Vault also stands steadfast to protect against other situations: the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the looting during Egyptian unrest that destroyed several types of seeds, and the January fire that engulfed several varieties at the National Plant Genetic Resources Laboratory in the Philippines. The vault can hold 2.25 billion seeds and the natural arctic temperatures keep them preserved.