'Doomsday' Vault Seeks to Protect World's Crops

APA project manager walking through the seed vault Monday in Longyearbyen.
LONGYEARBYEN, Norway -- A "doomsday" seed vault built to protect millions of crops from climate change, wars and natural disasters opened Tuesday deep within an Arctic mountain in the remote Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard.

"With climate change and other forces threatening the diversity of life that sustains our planet, Norway is proud to be playing a central role in creating a facility capable of protecting what are not just seeds, but the fundamental building blocks of human civilization," Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg said.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai of Kenya were among the dozens of guests invited to the opening ceremony.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, about 130 meters inside a frozen mountain, will serve as a backup for hundreds of other seed banks worldwide.

Dubbed a Noah's Ark for plant life, it has the capacity to store 4.5 million seed samples from around the world and shield them from man-made and natural disasters. Deep into the permafrost of the mountain, it has been built to withstand an earthquake or a nuclear strike.

Norway owns the vault in Svalbard, about 1,000 kilometers from the North Pole. It paid $9.1 million for construction, which took less than a year. Other countries can deposit seeds without charge and withdraw them upon need.

"Crop diversity will soon prove to be our most potent and indispensable resource for addressing climate change, water and energy supply constraints," said Cary Fowler, head of the Global Crop Diversity Trust.

Svalbard is cold, but giant air conditioning units have chilled the vault further to minus 18 degrees Celsius, a temperature at which experts say many seeds could last for 1,000 years.