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'Doomsday' seed vault to open in Norway

  • Story Highlights
  • Ultimate safety net for the world's seed collections opens in Norway this week
  • Can hold up to 4.5M seed samples, will eventually house most types of key crops
  • Norwegian govt. paid to build vault in mountainside between Norway and North Pole
  • Similar to an existing seed bank in England that works with wild plants
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LONGYEARBYEN, Norway (CNN) -- A vast underground vault storing millions of seeds from around the world is scheduled to open this week in a mountain on a remote island near the Arctic Ocean.

Dubbed the "Doomsday Vault," the seed bank is considered the ultimate safety net for the world's seed collections, protecting them from a wide range of threats including war, natural disasters, lack of funding or simply poor agricultural management.

The Norwegian government paid to build the vault in a mountainside near Longyearbyen, in the remote Svalbard islands between Norway and the North Pole. Building began last year, and the vault is scheduled to open officially Tuesday.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, as it is officially known, can hold as many as 4.5 million seed samples and will eventually house almost every variety of most important food crops in the world, according to the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which is paying to collect and maintain the seeds. Watch a tour of the frigid vault Video

The United Nations founded the trust in 2004 to support the long-term conservation of crop diversity, and countries and foundations provide the funding.

"The seed vault is the perfect place for keeping seeds safe for centuries," said Cary Fowler, executive director of the trust. "At these temperatures, seeds for important crops like wheat, barley and peas can last for up to 10,000 years."

The vault's location deep inside a mountain in the frozen north ensures the seeds can be stored safely no matter what happens outside.

"We believe the design of the facility will ensure that the seeds will stay well-preserved even if such forces as global warming raise temperatures outside the facility," said Magnus Bredeli Tveiten, project manager for the Norwegian government.

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The vault sits at the end of a 120-meter (131-yard) tunnel blasted inside the mountain. Workers used a refrigeration system to bring the vault to -18 degrees Celsius (just below 0 degrees Fahrenheit), and a smaller refrigeration system plus the area's natural permafrost and the mountain's thick rock will keep the vault at least -4 C (25 F).

The vault at Svalbard is similar to an existing seed bank in Sussex, England, about an hour outside London. The British vault, called the Millennium Seed Bank, is part of an scientific project that works with wild plants, as opposed to the seeds of crops.

Paul Smith, the leader of the Millennium Seed Bank project, said preserving the seeds of wild plants is just as important as preserving the seeds of vital crops.

"We must give ourselves every option in the future to use the whole array of plant diversity that is available to us," Smith told CNN.

The idea for the Arctic seed bank dates to the 1980s but only became a possibility after the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources came into force in 2004, the Norwegian government said. The treaty provided an international framework for conserving and accessing crop diversity.

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Svalbard is designed to store duplicates of seeds from seed collections around the world.

The Norwegian government says it has paid 50 million Norwegian Kroner ($9.4 million) to build the seed vault. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Becky Anderson contributed to this report

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