Syria Conflict Forces First Withdrawal From Doomsday Arctic Seed Vault

A vault carved into the Arctic permafrost is filled with samples of the world’s most important seeds in case food crops are wiped out by a catastrophe. Like the war in Syria.

Photo by Jacqueline Pietsch/AFP/Getty Images

This week, for the first time, scientists in the Middle East have accessed a seed bank designed for the apocalypse.

The Syrian war, which a study earlier this year suggested was sparked in part by a massive drought made worse by climate change, has instigated a horrible refugee crisis. Now, experts fear an important collection of seeds may have also been lost. Even if it remains unharmed, the scientists in charge of the collection say there’s no way to safely access it.

The seed bank was located at the headquarters of the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas in Aleppo, Syria. The center’s scientists relocated to Beirut after rebels began occupying the site in 2012. But they left behind an important collection of drought-resistant seeds in cold storage. Duplicates of about 87 percent of those seeds were sent to a special Arctic seed vault in Svalbard, Norway, before 2012, once it became obvious that the war posed a threat to the center. But the other 13 percent could become unrecoverable.

The seeds the scientists want back from the Arctic storage facility are specifically attuned to produce high yields of wheat, barley, and other staple crops in especially dry areas and are critical for the region’s future habitability as global warming intensifies. By jeopardizing the Syrian seed bank, fighters may have made the region more vulnerable to climate change in the long run. This is exactly what the Pentagon means when it says climate change is a “threat multiplier.”

“I don’t think they’re getting back in to Syria any time soon, so they’re going to re-establish that gene bank center now,” Cary Fowler, founder of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, told Australia’s ABC News.

The Syrian scientists need to restock their new site with the seeds previously sent to the Arctic for safekeeping—and that’s exactly how the process is supposed to work. When disaster strikes, the Arctic seed vault forms a sort of planetary insurance policy. The Norwegian newspaper VG first reported the withdrawal under the headline “historic day for the seed vault in Svalbard.”

The Arctic vault itself was designed to be disaster-proof but has recently struggled with a lack of funding that’s called its ambitious mandate—securing the world’s food supply, forever—into question. Scientists at smaller seed banks around the world, like the one in Syria, must regularly plant stored seeds and harvest new ones to maintain the collection. If they fail, for whatever reason, those varieties could be lost forever.

According to Reuters, the Arctic seed vault has “more than 860,000 samples, from almost all nations. Even if the power were to fail, the vault would stay frozen and sealed for at least 200 years.”