When you think of doomsday preppers, you probably think of folks with a basement full of canned food, hand-crank radios, and batteries. In Norway, though, the government has taken a different kind of doomsday precaution by saving seeds in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. The world’s largest secure seed storage facility has been in operation since 2008, accepting deposits from around the world to resupply agricultural fields in the event of a major crop-devastating natural disaster. Now scientists are making a major withdrawal from the seed bank for the first time, but not for reasons they anticipated. The war in Syria has interrupted the work of scientists in Aleppo, making it necessary to recover wheat seeds from the so-called ‘Doomsday Vault’ for planting.
In Syria, scientists have been working to develop new strains of drought- and heat-resistant wheat at a key gene bank in Aleppo, the largest city in the country. In that region, some 70,000 residents have fled in recent days following a government-led offensive against rebel-held areas south of the city. The turmoil has caused the gene bank to shut down, halting scientific progress and causing researchers to abandon their seed inventories.
Withdrawing seeds from the safe-keeping of the Doomsday Vault, which is situated in the side of a mountain in the Arctic archipelago where the seeds are kept cold and dry, is the only way for scientists to continue their work. The vault reports that 128 crates of seeds for a total of 38,000 species were withdrawn and sent to new facilities in Lebanon and Morocco, where the researchers can continue to study and cultivate the more resilient strains outside the war zone.
The relocated gene bank research won’t just deal in wheat, although that is the most prevalent crop the scientists are working with. The bank, run by International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) manages more than 135,000 varieties of wheat, fava bean, lentil and chickpea crops, as well as the world’s most valuable barley collection. Making a withdrawal from the Doomsday Vault is considered a crucial move. ICARDA representative Thanos Tsivelikas, who is supervising the withdrawal, says it is “a rescue mission; these seeds cannot be replaced.”