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New Noah's Ark

Ensuring the long-term survival of the world's agriculture by preserving one of its most basic resources: seeds.

It's 2050, and global warming is in full effect. Because of regional climate disruptions, crops that once were abundant no longer grow in their original habitat. Drought has demolished Africa's once-fertile farmlands, and monsoons have drowned East Asia's rice supply. The world's agricultural infrastructure is in complete disarray.The possibility of such a catastrophe, however remote, has led the Global Crop Diversity Trust, a small nonprofit based in Rome, to create the Svalbard International Seed Vault. This new air-locked structure, soon to be dug into an arctic mountainside on Norway's Spitsbergen Island, ensures the long-term survival of the world's agriculture by preserving one of its most basic resources: seeds. "The vault is a global insurance policy," says Cary Fowler, the executive secretary of the Trust, the organization spearheading the comprehensive archive. Funded with $3 million from the Norwegian government, the vault will safeguard seeds of every known crop variety from nearly every country on earth, and will begin accepting samples in fall 2007.Protected from any mischief by an intricate system of motion detectors and alarms, the vault is also secured by the island's permafrost, which, despite global warming, should guarantee that the temperature inside the vault rises no higher than 27 degrees Fahrenheit in the event of refrigeration equipment malfunction. "It is, in a sense, made to run by itself," says Fowler. Currently under construction, the vault will resemble a library, with shelves of sealed boxes that each hold up to 400 different samples, preserving them for hundreds of years."Crop diversity is the most precious resource on earth," says Fowler. "It allows us to fashion efficient and sustainable responses to food insecurity, climate change, and constraints in water and energy supplies." He explains that extinction is a process, not an event. "It doesn't take place when the last individual dies, but when the species loses the ability to evolve. We must realize that our major crops can become extinct even if there are presently billions of that species. They are domesticated plants. Their evolution is in our hands." And soon, safe in a vault.FOUND Dutch explorer Willem Barents discovered Spitsbergen, the largest island in the Svalbard Archipelago, while searching for the Northern Sea Route in 1596.LEARN MORE

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