See the ‘Doomsday’ Seed Vault Opened in Response to Syria Crisis

Scientists have had to tap the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway because of the chaos in Syria.

Rising concern over the ability of countries to grow food has led to the first ever request for a deposit from the “doomsday” seed vault in a frigid corner of Norway. Thanks to Syria’s civil war, the region’s primary seed vault in Aleppo has been forced to operate in a limited fashion, amid fighting that has left several hundred thousand dead and forced an estimated 11 million to become refugees. As ISIS controls part of Syria and refugees stream across Europe, destruction of antiquities and infrastructure continues.

Syrian scientists have re-established the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas in a decentralized model, with staff in eight surrounding countries and a temporary headquarters in Beirut. This week the organization asked for some of their seeds back from the doomsday vault as a precautionary measure to duplicate the material. Those seeds are needed by plant researchers who are working on the next crops to be planted in the Middle East and beyond, in order to try to stay a step ahead of pests and drought and increase yields to feed a growing population.

Scientists have specifically requested drought-friendly seeds of wheat, barley, and grasses from the vault, which is tucked into an Arctic mountainside on the archipelago of Svalbard, about 800 miles (1,300 kilometers) from the North Pole.

The Svalbard seed bank opened on the island of Longyearbyen in 2008 and contains around 860,000 samples, from countries all over the globe. It was designed to serve as the ultimate safety net for food security in case of nuclear war, asteroid impact, or other apocalyptic scenarios. The mostly subterranean facility was designed to protect up to 2.25 billion seeds. (Learn more about the seed vault.)

“I'd say doomsday is happening every day for crop varieties,” Cary Fowler, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which helps manage the facility, said in a previous interview.

“Lots of people think that this vault is waiting for doomsday before we use it. But it's really a backup plan for seeds and crops. We are losing seed diversity every day and this is the insurance policy for that,” said Fowler, referring to the fact that many crop varieties are disappearing thanks to shifts in weather, societal preferences, and market pressures.

In fact, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that three-quarters of the world's crop biodiversity is no longer being planted in farmers’ fields. When crops are consolidated they become more vulnerable to disease, pests, droughts, or other threats. The genetic diversity found in the vault provides a critical safety net, the agency says.

Even a seemingly simple crop, such as wheat, may have 200,000 different varieties. And each variety has a suite of individual traits that determine how it fares in high or low temperatures, during droughts, or against certain diseases or pests.

“Even conservative projections of changing climate now indicate that by mid-century huge areas of some countries, in Africa for example, will be experiencing climates that are unlike any that have existed since the beginning of agriculture in those countries,” Fowler explained.

“How will they become adapted to future climates? One way they can is by tapping into this rich storehouse of diversity and breeding new crops with traits that allow them to succeed in those climates. It's essential to future food security,” Fowler said.

And thanks to war in Syria, scientists have tapped that resource for the first time. Seed vaults have previously been destroyed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and one was badly damaged by a flood in the Philippines. 

This story was updated at 11:40 a.m. ET on September 28 to clarify that the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas has distributed their staff across eight countries, that the seed bank in Aleppo is in fact not damaged (but is only able to operate in a limited fashion), and that seeds from the center are distributed to other parts of the world in addition to the Middle East.