Ceremony held for 'Doomsday' seed vault opening in Arctic
LONGYEARBYEN, Norway—Norway opened a frozen "doomsday" vault Tuesday deep within an Arctic mountain where millions of seeds will be stored to safeguard against wars or natural disasters wiping out food crops around the globe.
Biblical references repeatedly cropped up as guests at the opening ceremony carried the first seed deposits into the vault in the remote Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard.
"This is a frozen Garden of Eden," European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said, standing in one of the frosty vaults against a backdrop of large discs made of ice.
Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg called the vault an "insurance policy" and added his own biblical comparison: "It is the Noah's Ark for securing biological diversity for future generations."
Svalbard Global Seed Vault, just 620 miles from the North Pole, is designed to house as many as 4.5 million crop seeds from all over the world. It is built to withstand global warming, earthquakes and even nuclear strikes.
The vault, built by the Norwegian government for $9.1 million, will operate like a bank box. Norway owns the bank, but the countries depositing seeds own them and can used them as needed free of charge.
Daily operations will be overseen by NorGen, a gene bank in an old coal mine on Svalbard that is jointly owned by the Nordic countries.
The vault will serve as a backup to the other 1,400 seed banks around the world, in case their deposits are lost. War wiped out seed banks in Iraq and Afghanistan, and another bank in the Philippines was flooded in the wake of a typhoon in 2006.
"It is very important for Africa to store seeds here because anything can happen to our national seed banks," said 2004 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai of Kenya. She is a board member of Global Crop Diversity Trust board, which collects the seeds for the Svalbard vault.
The group was founded by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization and Biodiversity International, a Rome-based research group.
"Crop diversity will soon prove to be our most potent and indispensable resource for addressing climate change, water and energy supply constraints, and for meeting the food needs of a growing population," said Cary Fowler, head of the trust.
Stoltenberg and Maathai made the first deposit in the vault -- a box of rice seeds from 104 countries. Guests at the ceremony carried dozens of other boxes through the steel and concrete-lined tunnel leading to the vaults.
The seeds are packed in silvery foil containers -- as many as 500 in each sample -- and placed on blue and orange metal shelves inside three 32-by-88-foot storage chambers. Each vault can hold 1.5 million sample packages of all types of crop seeds, from carrots to wheat.
Svalbard is cold, but giant air conditioning units have chilled the vault further to -0.4 degrees, a temperature at which experts say many seeds could last for 1,000 years.
After the ceremony, Stoltenberg and Barroso took a three-hour helicopter tour of the remote region. They landed on a vast glacier and stopped at the research stations of Ny-Aalesund, some 60 miles northwest of Longyearbyen, the main settlement on Svalbard.
Stoltenberg told reporters that he wanted Barroso to see the effects of climate change in the form of melting ice.
Barroso said such melting glaciers show that "we see the need to act ... to avoid real challenges to balance in the life of our planet."
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