A tall rectangular building juts out of a mountainside on a Norwegian island just 800 miles from the North Pole. Narrow and sharply edged, the facility cuts an intimidating figure against the barren Arctic background. But the gray building holds the key to the earth's biodiversity.
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, built in 2008, stores more than 850,000 seed samples from nations all over the world. Extending nearly 500 feet into the mountain, it's intended to safeguard the planet's food supply and biodiversity in the event a doomsday catastrophe like nuclear war or crippling disease wipes out varieties of plants. Crop Trust, the company that runs the seed vault, says on its website that the vault is "the final backup":
"The purpose of the Vault is to store duplicates (backups) of seed samples from the world's crop collections. It will secure, for centuries, millions of seeds representing every important crop variety available in the world today. It is the final back up."
But now, less than 10 years after the opening, officials are preparing to withdraw seeds for the first time. What apocalyptic event prompted the removal of some of humanity's food backups?
The Syrian civil war.
"We did not expect a retrieval this early," Crop Trust spokesman Brian Lainoff told NPR. "But [we] knew in 2008 that Syria was in for an interesting couple of years. This is why we urged them to deposit so early on."
More than 250,000 people have been killed in the ongoing Syrian civil war and millions of others have been forced from their homes. But the human toll isn't the only cost of the violence.
Reuters reports that the seeds requested by researchers include "samples of wheat, barley and grasses suited to dry regions" to replace "seeds in a gene bank near the Syrian city of Aleppo that has been damaged by the war."
"Grethe Evjen, an expert at the Norwegian Agriculture Ministry, said the seeds had been requested by the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA). ICARDA moved its headquarters to Beirut from Aleppo in 2012 because of the war.
"ICARDA wants almost 130 boxes out of 325 it had deposited in the vault, containing a total of 116,000 samples, she told Reuters. They will be sent once paperwork is completed, she said."
According to Crop Trust, there are some 1,700 seed banks in the world, but many of them are vulnerable to natural disasters, war and even mundane hazards like insufficient funding or a broken freezer.
The Svalbard vault, however, is protected by its remote and very chilly location. The company says being inside a mountain increases security, while the permafrost offers a "fail-safe" seed conservation method.