Big chill starts at Doomsday seed vault

Chilling units have been switched on as final preparations begin at an Arctic seed store built to act as a 'Noah's Ark' for food crops.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is set to officially open in February next year and is designed to be a fail-safe repository for the world’s food crops.

The vault, funded in the main by the Norwegian government, will store seeds from collections from around the globe, safeguarding strains and specieis or agricultural crops from being lost a result of disease, mutation, war or simply a lack of resources.

It has been carved out of the rock on a remote island isolated from the likely impacts of any future disasters.

Over the next two months, refrigeration units will bring the temperature of the sandstone rock surrounding the seed vault from its current -5 degrees Celsius to -18 degrees.

“It’s very satisfying to see the vault evolve from a bold concept to an impressive facility that has everything we need to protect crop biodiversity,” said Mr Terje Riis-Johansen, Norway’s Minister of Agriculture and Food.

Cary Fowler, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust which will administer the facility said: “The seed vault is the perfect place for keeping seeds safe for centuries.

“At these temperatures, seeds for important crops like wheat, barley and peas can last for up to 10,000 years.”

With its capacity to hold up to 4.5 million seed samples, the vault will eventually house virtually every variety of almost every important food crop in the world.

The vast collection is intended as a hedge against disaster so that food production can be restarted anywhere on the planet should it be threatened by a regional or global catastrophe.

It is therefore critical that the vault have the technical capability to keep seeds cool and viable for a long period of time.

“We ran a lot of computer simulations to determine the optimum approach and believe we have found a very effective and especially energy efficient way to establish reliably cool conditions inside the vault,” said project manager Magnus Bredeli Tveiten with Statsbygg, the Norwegian government’s Directorate of Public Construction.

“We believe the design of the facility will ensure that the seeds will stay well-preserved even if such forces as global warming raise temperatures outside the facility.”

Engineers are essentially using rock as a “cold store,” – the reverse of a storage heater – an approach that has become popular on the Norwegian mainland as a way to establish energy efficient refrigeration systems.

To do this a temporary 30 kilowatt refrigeration system will be used and once the temperature has been brought down to the desired level, a much smaller refrigeration system will be used to keep it there.

Sam Bond

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