The instructions that Noah received to build the ark were clear and precise: "Make thee an ark of gopher wood; rooms shalt thou make in the ark, and shalt pitch it within and without with pitch. And this is the fashion which thou shalt make it of: The length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits, the breadth of it fifty cubits, and the height of it thirty cubits."
The divine manual for the survival of mankind from the first book of Moses, Genesis, has been reinterpreted for the modern world. Drive a 120-meter-long tunnel into the side of a mountain on Spitzbergen, 130 meters above sea level. Carve out three halls (artificial underground cavities), each of which is 27 meters long, 10 meters wide and 6 meters high, and cool these to minus 18 degrees Celsius. Protect everything from outside with permafrost.
The poured-concrete entrance to the world's largest seed depository - the Svalbard Global Seed Vault – rising, like in a James Bond movie, from the side of a mountain near the town of Longyearbyen on the Norwegian island of Spitzbergen, appears to admonish mankind – always expect the worst! At the same time the crystals above the metal entrance doors seem to say: hope for the best! In the event of some future cataclysm that threatens the global food supply, be it because of war, disease or climate change, this vault located 1,300 kilometers south of the North Pole offers the last hope of salvation - or at least belief in it.
What if temperature changes around the globe mean that common varieties of rice, corn or wheat no longer thrive but shrivel, resulting in the loss of both seed and harvest? Mankind would need some sort of backup to enable it to reproduce and re-engineer lost arable crops as the basis of our food supply. Ultimately, Svalbard is the repository of the knowledge of millennia passed down over countless generations: the seed for arable farming, the foundations of our life, constantly developed and refined by our ancestors. The DNA of the seed enshrines salvation and doom, record harvests and famines. The loss of this knowledge would threaten the very existence of humanity.
A key supporter of the Spitzbergen project: The Global Crop Diversity Trust.
With the Food Forever Initiative, Trust director Marie Haga and her team want to raise awareness of the importance of crop diversity for the development of more resilient agriculture. The relevance of this issue today is highlighted by the example of Syria, which has already experienced the worst-case scenario. The national seedbank in Aleppo proactively sent seed samples to various seed vaults around the globe, including Spitzbergen, for safe storage, far away from the chaos of the war. Aleppo was the depository for treasures: ancient varieties of lentils, beans or wheat. They formed the basis for the supply of seed to farmers in the local arid regions – and they could become even more valuable if temperatures on earth were to rise further and trigger more droughts. Crops that can withstand drought would then become key to survival.
This approach highlights the particular importance of seed vaults around the globe and on Spitzbergen. They constitute the emergency reserve in the event of catastrophe.