Inside a 'Living Fort Knox,' Built to Protect Plant Seeds

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Spending several days here on top of the world, we've discovered Svalbard is a lot of things. Cold — the temperature today is below zero, Fahrenheit. Remote — this is the northernmost permanent settlement on earth. And tough — there are more polar bears than people (3,000 versus 2,500 or so human residents).

All those things make it the perfect place for the Global Seed Vault, an ultra-high security, ultra-low temperature bank for the seeds of every plant we eat — more than two million of them.

The vault is the result of the collaboration of more than one hundred countries, with Norway leading the way. The Norwegian government is paying the bills, but it is an American who has been the driving force behind the effort. Cary Fowler, a third-generation farmer from Tennessee and chairman of the Global Diversity Trust, gave us a firsthand tour of what he calls a living Fort Knox.

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"This is a library of life," Fowler said. "We've got all the diversity, all the heritage of thousands of years of agriculture, and what we're going to use for the future."

It is also the ultimate insurance against catastrophe. The concrete bunkers of the doomsday vault, as some are calling it, were built to withstand floods, fires, nuclear wars and earthquakes.

Fowler explained that, "Many of the existing collections are in dangerous places and accidents can happen everywhere of course so you want a safety backup copy, this is the plan B."

Never Too Cold

The pure cold is one reason the vault is here in Svalbard. Even in the worst predictions of global warming, looking 200 years into the future, the mountain will remain frozen, helping to keep the seeds inside safe.

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In these conditions, some seeds can survive as long as 20,000 years. And the planet already has some catching up to do. In the past century, 75 percent of the world's plant diversity has disappeared, the victim of mass farming and the early effects of climate change.

The vault works like a normal bank. Deposits will be collected from countries around the world, where facilities are less safe and often run-down, and withdrawals taken out in event of trouble.

The danger is constant. In 2002, the Taliban destroyed Afghanistan's national seed bank. In 2003, looters destroyed Iraq's.

Wangari Maathai, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, is vice chairman of the Global Diversity Trust.

"I can tell you that I'm excited about this possibility," he said. "It's really fascinating to imagine that we are standing here in the middle of a rock because we care because we are thinking about tomorrow. It's really extraordinary."

One thing the vault doesn't rely on is people. Scientists will only visit a few times a year and, in the event of real disaster, the vault can survive on its own for decades. A place so inhospitable to life will now be one of the best hopes for saving it.

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