Tech by VICE

Syria Is Making the First Withdrawal from the 'Doomsday' Arctic Seed Vault

A center in Aleppo has become unable to grow and dispatch seeds because of the conflict.

by Rachel Pick
Sep 22 2015, 4:54pm

Thanks to the Syrian civil war, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault has been hit with its first request for a withdrawal.

The seed vault, buried deep inside a mountain near the Arctic Circle, was designed to hold the world's seeds in a secure facility in case of extinction, natural disaster, or an apocalyptic event. It also has the more immediately practical function as a backup for smaller, regional seed vaults around the world.

A 2013 mini-documentary by David Osit about the Svalbard vault.

One such collection, held in Aleppo, has been partially destroyed by Syria's ongoing civil war. The International Centre for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA), responsible for making the withdrawal request, has already had to move its headquarters from Aleppo to Beirut in 2012. The Aleppo vault is still partly functioning, but the conflict has hindered its ability to dispatch seeds to other countries in the Middle East, an important function of the organization.

ICARDA's stockpile includes a host of agricultural specimens that have adapted specifically to survive in dry areas and drought conditions, which will be crucial as the global climate warms.

In a short 2013 film about the Svalbard vault, the vault's developer Cary Fowler points out ICARDA's backup samples in the vault. "They have a safety duplicate collection here in Svalbard, which is a great thing because the area is in a state of war right now," he says. It's a shame that his comment turned out to be so prescient.