The World’s Most Important Freezer

Buried beneath the permafrost lies the world’s best chance of survival

The entrance of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.

Teeth-chatteringly close to the North Pole, in the tiny town of Longyearbyen in Svalbard, Norway, you’ll find Cary Fowler’s Global Seed Vault, an air-locked repository buried beneath the permafrost, which houses and protects more than half a billion of the world’s seeds. Alongside stunning images of fjords and fauna, the agriculturist’s new book, Seeds on Ice, offers a glimpse into what has become the world’s most crucial agrarian library. In 2007, when the vault began accepting seed samples, Fowler described it as “a global insurance policy” against diminishing genetic diversity.

Plants are threatened in numerous ways. Global warming is widely damaging—for example, rising temperatures sterilize the pollen of certain types of rice plants as they flower in the daytime. War in Syria is driving the extinction of several varieties of wheat, barley, and legumes, according to Fowler. Gene banks (repositories built to secure genetic material like plant cuttings) are underfunded worldwide, while monoculture erodes the diverse agricultural landscape. To combat this, Fowler stores seeds from vulnerable banks in war-torn countries in the vault—sometimes for years—until the seeds can be shipped back once conflict abates.

Though Fowler’s freezer has been described as an “arctic doomsday vault,” the project doesn’t aim to capitalize on fear so much as sustain essential agricultural diversity. “The Svalbard Global Seed Vault was not built in a spirit of pessimism,” Fowler writes in Seeds. “It was conceptualized and constructed by optimists and pragmatists, by people who wanted to do something to preserve options so that humanity and its crops might be better prepared for change.”

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