The doomsday camera: why can it save us from a catastrophe?

The Svalbard World Seed Bank is an underground storage facility located on the island of Spitsbergen, in the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard. / Marcin Kadziolka / Shutterstock

The World Seed Bank in Svalvard, Norway, is a huge 'refrigerator' that stores seeds from all over the world that could be used in the event of a catastrophe. Spain is going to send more than a thousand seeds

Sergio Fuentes Anton

SERGIO SOURCES ANTON Professor of Didactics of Experimental Sciences, University of Salamanca

The first years of the 21st century are turning out to be quite problematic. In the last decade alone, we have suffered disasters of all kinds: environmental –storms like Filomena or the eruptions of Cumbre Vieja (La Palma) or Kilauea (Hawaii)–, health –the recent coronavirus pandemic– and even political, such as the current attack on Ukraine.

Given all these misfortunes that have had and still have a severe impact on the world's population, it is inevitable that that famous reference to the Apocalypse made by Fernando Arrabal with his phrase «millennialism is coming!» will come to mind.

At any moment, a natural or political phenomenon can destabilize the economy of a country, take away much of its ecological value and even make it disappear, as is happening with the island of Tuvalu, in the Pacific, which will be swallowed by the sea in the next years.

But we must not consider all this as a catastrophic speech. Although on certain occasions we cannot recover what was lost, there are measures and solutions that we can carry out to minimize the impact of all these phenomena on Earth.

And one of these measures is in the Norwegian archipelago of Svalvard.

Noah's Ark of our time

Strategically located on the island of Spitsbergen, stands the World Seed Bank or the doomsday chamber as it is also known.

The imposing building that began to be built in 2006 houses more than a million samples of seeds, mostly agricultural, from all over the globe.

We have to take into account that a sample contains 500 perfectly preserved seeds for future use. Therefore, the bank currently contains more than 500 million seeds that would help feed the earth's population.

What is truly important about the building (apart from being a reservoir of plant biodiversity) is in its characteristics. The chamber was built to withstand earthquakes of up to 10 degrees of intensity, resists volcanic eruptions and even solar radiation.

In addition, the ground's permafrost (permanently frozen layer) would act as a natural refrigerant in the event of an electrical failure or loss of power supply.

The interior of the warehouse naturally has temperatures around -3 to -6 ℃ and, artificially, there are refrigeration systems that would preserve the seeds for hundreds of years.

Now the nickname of Noah's Ark plant makes sense. Thanks to all the material that is being deposited in it, these plant species could be replanted if any disaster occurred that would eliminate them.

Spain recently reported that it would send more than 1,000 seeds to the Svalvard warehouse, various species of cereals, legumes and vegetables that, if necessary, could contribute to safeguarding world food.

Only on one occasion was it required to remove seeds from the facility. In 2015, during the Syrian war, the International Center for Agricultural Research in Arid Zones (ICARDA) in Aleppo was destroyed and its contents, nearly 150,000 varieties of species adapted to arid zones, were completely lost.

Thanks to the fact that the Syrian government had previously sent duplicates of 80% of their samples, they were able to recover part of that lost biodiversity.

Other World Heritage Losses

Although the case of Syria was the result of a war that has been going on for many years, the world has recently witnessed other great losses in ancient history.

The Notre Dame Cathedral fire was a clear example of heritage loss. Although the treasures contained in the cathedral were saved, many aspects of the structure and decoration of the building were destroyed.

Although they are restored, that April 15, 2019, Paris lost a large part of the Gothic art of the 12th and 13th centuries.

The National Museum of Brazil had worse luck when in 2018 a brutal fire destroyed the building and everything it contained. As a result, more than 20 million objects were lost forever. Two hundred years of history that disappeared overnight.

As Katia Bogéa, president of the National Historical and Artistic Heritage Institute, commented, “It is a national and global tragedy. The whole world is seeing a loss not only for the Brazilian people, but for all of humanity."

More structures to conserve biodiversity

Almost all of the material in the Museum of Brazil cannot be recovered now, especially in those cases in which the pieces were unique.

The first human fossil found in Brazil or its paleontological collection, along with a large amount of botanical and zoological information gathered over more than two centuries, are just some of the important losses.

It is in these cases that the important work carried out by museums throughout the world and the need for collaboration between these entities should be emphasized.

Among their multiple functions, museums are in charge of conserving everything from a country's heritage to unique samples in the history of the Earth.

For this reason, creating new structures where biological or historical information can be stored and, of course, keeping existing ones in good condition are undoubtedly measures that would greatly help to replace part of the losses produced in these cases.

As happened with the Chamber of Svalvard and the case of Syria, the conservation of biodiversity is something that must be done by all. That apocalyptic future that is becoming more and more real may be easier to change and, in the worst case, easier to remedy.

This article has been published in 'The Conversation'.

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