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The man behind the 'doomsday' vault that stores every known crop on the planet explains how it came to be

Jim Richardson

Buried in the side of a mountain in Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago between mainland Norway and the North Pole, the Global Seed Vault stores virtually every kind of seed.

Cary Fowler, the man considered the “father” of the seed vault and a former executive director of the international nonprofit organisation Crop Trust, compares it to a safety deposit box: the point of the vault is not for apocalyptic scenarios, but serves more as a sort of back-up drive.

Fowler, whose book “Seeds On Ice: Svalbard and the Global Seed Vault” is out now, explained that the vault is used to store duplicates of existing seed banks that have been collecting seeds for 100 years. That way, if a regional seed vault loses something, the Svalbard collection can replace the sample, as they did when part of a seed collection was damaged in the Syrian War.

Take a look inside the vault that already holds 860,000 samples, with more getting added all the time.

The vault is located in Svalbard, an archipelago that's part of Norway. It's a cold area filled with polar bears and snow scooters, along with brightly coloured houses.

Mari Tefre

The archipelago is located in the Arctic Ocean, midway between the North Pole and Norway, where the warmest temperature this year was 58 degrees Fahrenheit. The winters remain below 0 and -1 degrees Fahrenheit.

The entrance to the vault sticks out of a mountain, illuminated with a light installation by Dyveke Sanne. Fowler told Business Insider that at first, he had no intention to write a book about the vault. In the end, he decided he needed to document how the seed vault came to be, including photos from the construction, striking photos of the Svalbard landscape, and initial design sketches.

Mari Tefre

Photographers including Mari Tefre and Jim Richardson, whose photographs are featured in the book, have been documenting the seed bank along the way.

Inside the entrance, there's a tunnel that runs from the entrance to the vault's rooms, 426 feet deep into the mountain.

Mari Tefre

Fowler said he also wanted to clear up some misunderstandings about what the vault's used for. 'People will say, 'how can you have enough seeds up there?' That's not the point, it's not for planting. This is really a genetic resource for plant breeding.'

Jim Richardson

Svalbard was an ideal location because it's so cold, the seeds can stay frozen in the permafrost. Importantly, says Fowler, 'the seeds don't have to be used as is.' Instead, researchers can use them to study potentially beneficial traits, like those for withstanding disease or climate change, and hopefully one day incorporate those into current crops.

Mari Tefre

Every year, gene-banks provide samples to crop breeders to test out, which in turn becomes different varieties of crops. Below, people taste tomatoes at a Seed Savers Exchange in the US.

Jim Richardson

'We don't need to experience apocalypse in order for the Seed Vault to be useful and to repay its costs many times over,' Fowler wrote in his book. 'We ... were not anticipating the end of the world. ... We were pragmatists. We wanted to address a problem we were already experiencing: the loss of diversity in individual gene-banks.'

Mari Tefre

And it's already proved its helpfulness -- the seed bank was able to replace some of the samples that had been lost after a seed bank in Aleppo was damaged during the Syrian War. 'It illustrates why we built it,' Fowler said. 'Loss of that collection would be irreplaceable. ... I tell people it's a great story -- a sad story -- of the seed vault functioning as an insurance policy.'

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