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Take an Icy Tour Through the Svalbard ‘Doomsday’ Vault

About 810 miles from the North Pole, in Norway, there is a slim and gleaming metal structure that juts out from the snowy landscape surrounding it, like a hidden Rebel structure on Hoth still hidden from the Empire’s menacing forces. But this structure isn’t home to Rebels. It’s home to seeds. And it may be humanity’s best bet for recovering its precious crops if there were ever a “doomsday” scenario.

Derek Muller, host of the popular science edutainment YouTube channel Veritasium (which has previously delivered countless cool science experiments), recently took a tour of this “Doomsday Vault”, better known by its actual name, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, exposing the icy innards of the giant freezer that keeps over a million seeds from around the world safe from annihilation.

Svalbard-Doors-05042016The frozen doors of one of Svalbard’s three seed vaults.

As Muller walks us through the vault — in the video posted above — he notes that its frigid temperatures (down to around -18 degrees Celsius), are produced concurrently by the structure’s own refrigeration units, as well as the freezing environment in which the vault is placed. Svalbard naturally stays around -4 or -5 degrees Celsius all year ’round, which means the vault is always buried in forever frozen permafrost. These freezing temperatures are critical for seed storage because they ensure slowed metabolic rates for the seeds. They age slower and last longer.

Svalbard-Seeds-05042016Airtight packages help to slow seeds’ metabolic rates.

Muller’s guide notes that there are no drugs or genetically modified seeds allowed in the vault, although she does say that she has received many illicit requests, including those from men who wish to keep their “gene material” in suspended animation.

And even though it may seem like overkill to keep seeds stored in a vault near the North Pole in case of some kind of doomsday event, Muller’s guide says that it has, in fact, already fulfilled its duty in several cases. Syria, for example, recently needed to recover its seeds after its gene bank in Aleppo was bombed.

Svalbard-N.K.-Boxes-05042016On the right: seed boxes from North Korea.

“The risk of a real doomsday scenario is incredibly remote,” Muller says, scanning the snowy horizon with his camera, “but whatever happens, thanks to this outpost at the top of the world, at least our seeds are safe.” (As long as nobody who knows about it squeals to the dark side.)

What are your thoughts on the Svalbard Seed Vault and its myriad genetic treasures? Let us know in the comments below!

Images: Veritasium

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