The Svalbard Global Seed Vault in the Arctic was supposed to stay shut until doomsday, but the Syrian civil war has forced its doors open.
The seed bank, built in 2008 on a remote island halfway between Norway and the North Pole, holds 860,000 seed samples deposited by countries all over the world. It’s meant to serve as “the final back up” for the world’s staple crops — rice from Asia, African maize, European barley — just in case they accidentally get obliterated through disease or nuclear war.
Svalbard is the largest of the 1,700 seed vaults all over the world, one of which is in the Syrian city of Aleppo. That bank — together with its samples of wheat, barley, and grasses developed for arid regions — has been badly damaged by the ongoing civil war, forcing its researchers to retrieve almost half of the seeds they’d deposited in Svalbard for long-term safekeeping, according to Reuters. Many countries in the Middle East rely on seed distribution from the Aleppo bank.
If we lose the genetic material behind those crops, there’s no bringing it back. As CropTrust, the organization behind the seed bank, put it, it’s “as irreversible as the extinction of a dinosaur, animal, or any form of life.”