The isolation combined with the vigilance of the residents makes Svalbard a good location for the seed bank. It's difficult to arrive or leave unnoticed.
Many tourists come to experience the peculiar seasonal phenomena of the Arctic. During the short summer, the sun never sets. During the winter, the islands are enveloped in unbroken darkness. Visitors can also see the northern lights, the near-mystical green-hued illumination of the sky also known as aurora borealis.
Some travelers use Svalbard as a jumping-off point for expeditions to the North Pole, about 800 miles to the north. Others explore the fjords, experiencing wildlife, glaciers and the array of colors produced by the freezing water and ever-changing ice.
Like calligraphy traced on a vast frozen canvas, eiders and arctic terns paint intricate patterns of flight against the backdrop of bright-blue glacier fronts. Beneath them, puffins and seals frolic in the water or rest on floating bits of ice. On land, white arctic foxes and polar bears hunt for prey.
Solitary wooden cabins stand abandoned in the wilderness, totems summoning memories of expeditions ending in madness and death, humans crushed by nature.
Above Longyearbyen, workers laboring in the cold have blasted through the mountain, carving out the vault intended to conserve specimens of all the known agricultural seed varieties in the world.
"Svalbard offers a low-cost, safety backup -- it's a great solution to the problem," said Luigi Guarino, a senior science coordinator at the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which is funded in part by a $30-million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
But the vault also has symbolic importance, he said. "To have the agreement to have all this material in one place sends an important message: We're trying to work together to safeguard the world's agriculture."
Although the Norwegian government has paid for the vault's construction, the trust will operate it and underwrite day-to-day operations amounting to a projected $125,000 per year. The trust also will help developing countries get their seeds to the Arctic. It's a delicate operation: Scientists have to transport the seeds quickly in special envelopes inside sturdy boxes to protect them against decay.
The seed vault will be a bank of sorts. In case of a local, or a global, disaster, countries can retrieve indigenous seeds to reestablish their native agriculture.
Some calamities, such as war or flooding, are sudden, but others take place over time. Scientists believe that climate change will bring more extreme weather, flooding some areas and drying others. Consequently, farmers and scientists will be forced to grow new varieties or entirely novel kinds of crops.
"Although it is easy to assume that U.S. agriculture is relatively self-sufficient, all agriculture in today's world is interdependent," concludes a report published in 2005 by the University of California Genetic Resources Conservation Program, based at UC Davis. "Crop diversity collections are the linchpin of this interdependence, and thus central . . . to the future of U.S. agriculture."
International seed banks returned indigenous varieties of rice to Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge's failed agricultural policies three decades ago threatened to destroy the country's rice production. Local bean varieties were salvaged in Rwanda after the 1994 genocide because of joint efforts by local and international researchers. The crop has helped revive the country's agriculture.
After the Indian Ocean tsunami caused devastation in South Asia in 2004, international seed banks provided Malaysia and Sri Lanka with rice varieties that could thrive in the coastal regions where large amounts of salt had been deposited by the surging seawater, according to the UC report.
"What we're trying to do is an insurance policy," Guarino said. "We don't know if those seeds are going to become important next year or in a hundred years."
Some scientists involved with crop conservation, however, are less enthusiastic about the Svalbard project, which they believe could take funds away from other initiatives.
"The problem that we have with this much-publicized project is that it tends to divert attention, energy and money away from what we consider as much more urgent and sustainable efforts to save biodiversity on the farm," said Henk Hobbelink, director of GRAIN, a nongovernmental organization based in Spain that promotes agricultural biodiversity.
More attention and funds need to be directed to farmers because their knowledge, practices and genetic resources continue the process of crop evolution, said Stephen Brush, a professor in the department of human and community development at UC Davis.
"I would never say, do away with gene banks. But we must be wary of thinking that gene banks are the solution to the agricultural future of the world," Brush said. "Of course, if there's something like a nuclear war that kills the world's crop plants, we certainly want to have the gene bank in Norway, but under normal circumstances, gene banks are just part of the larger picture."
Many countries have their own crop repositories or seed banks. There are more than 1,400 worldwide, holding about 6.5 million plant samples. At the federal gene bank in Fort Collins, Colo., scientists store plant tissues in liquid nitrogen baths at minus-213 degrees, inside high-tech cold rooms.
But many of the world's gene banks are plagued by funding shortages, management failures and equipment problems. In the southeastern African nation of Malawi, the national seed bank consists of a chest freezer in a shack.
In Afghanistan, Taliban fighters destroyed the national seed bank in 2002. The following year, looters ruined Iraq's national seed repository. But Iraqi scientists had smuggled a "black box" of plant samples across the border to Syria to safeguard them before the U.S.-led invasion that March, and Iraqi farmers today can replant their fields with indigenous crops.
The only seeds that will not be accepted for storage at the Svalbard vault are those from genetically modified plants.
As its first priority, the trust has identified "at-risk collections," from countries that have material not duplicated in any of the international seed banks. Some contain samples that will die unless they are regenerated within the next few years.
The seeds constitute a living legacy, the trust's Fowler said.
"If we are going to survive as a species, it will be because we've learned to share that heritage," he said. "I know this is just a cave in a mountain, but it's also the only thing I can think of that is really tangible, positive and directed toward the future with virtually all the countries working together. Maybe there's a lesson in that."
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