As the plane comes in to land at Longyearbyen airport – the furthest north you can reach by scheduled flight – you can see the Svalbard Global Seed Vault cut into the barren mountainside above the runway. A brutalist wedge of concrete slicing into the cliff, the building shimmers in the harsh, arctic light as if it were glazed in diamonds. It was designed to be a beacon, a symbol of hope looking out over the Barents Sea. Built in 2008 by the Norwegian government (for $9 million), it houses 526,000 samples of seeds; scientists hope these might be interbred in order to adapt global agriculture to climate change, thereby averting mass starvation. They could even be called on to restart global agriculture in the aftermath of an apocalypse.
The vault extends 146m into the sandstone mountain; at the end, there are three airlocked refrigerated caverns with space to preserve up to 4.5 million strains of plants. Cary Fowler, the executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which runs the vault, tells me that the structure was created to withstand "bunker buster" and nuclear bombs. The tunnel, with its four locked doors, movement sensors and coded keys, is modelled on those used in military facilities. It is concave at one end to ensure that the blast of a direct hit would be bounced back along it rather than into the rooms where the seeds are stored. Fowler has referred to the vault as the "Noah's Ark" or "Fort Knox of seeds".
"But this is not about nuclear war, or an asteroid hitting the Earth," Fowler clarifies. "That's not why we built this facility, though we understood that a facility like this would probably be useful in those situations. We built this for the apocalypse that's happening every day, in seedbanks around the world, where unique varieties are lost and become extinct."
It has been a bleak time for the world's 1,400 seedbanks. The recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq saw their national collections looted and destroyed; in the Philippines, a tornado ripped through a wall, flooding the country's store; in Cameroon and Italy, power outages and equipment failure meant the loss of hundreds of specimens. The Seed Vault in the remote, politically stable archipelago of Svalbard is a back-up hard drive, a cold store full of duplicate seeds from across the world.
credit Nils Peter Dale
Because of fears of contamination, and so that the seeds can be kept at in suspended animation at -18 degrees centigrade, deposits are limited to twice a year and the building is closed to the public. "When we realised it was not meant to be visited," says Peter Söderman, the project architect for Barlindhaug Consult, "we wanted to create something that would set people's fantasies in motion."
The slender 2.5m wide, 8m high facade is cantilevered out over the slope, with a steel bridge leading to a heavy steel door, allowing the wind to prevent snow from building up. The top of the structure and the ridge along its back are decorated with an artwork called Perpetual Repercussion by the Norwegian artist Dyveke Sanne. Shards of mirror and crystal behind safety glass reflect the sunlight in summer, during which there are 99 days of midnight sun. During the 84 days of polar night, when the sun never rises over the horizon, fibre-optic lights give the building an ethereal, turquoise glow. "We wanted to show the world that there's something valuable there, hidden in the mountain," explains Söderman.
Superman's Fortress of Solitude was located in the Arctic, in a secret location in the side of a cliff, and the Seed Vault, with its kryptonite glare, has exerted a similar sci-fi fascination. Before it was built, New Scientist dubbed it the "Doomsday Vault" and the name has stuck. Conspiracy theories have circulated on the internet that it is a secret NATO facility, a bunker for the Norwegian government in case of nuclear war, or a Monsanto-sponsored eugenics project. Fowler laughs at these myths, pointing out that Norway forbids the importation of genetically modified seeds. As for the idea that it is a nuclear safe house, he says: "Since I know there's no running water down there, and there's only one small chemical toilet, I think I'm going to take my chances on the outside – I'd rather have been down there with the miners in Chile."
Longyearbyen, the administrative centre of Svalbard, has just over 2,000 inhabitants and feels like the end of the Earth. When you leave the settlement you have to hire a rifle and take it with you to protect against polar bears – a few weeks before I visit, a tourist shot one that was in the process of eating his friend. Six hundred miles from the North Pole, it was once a staging post for trips further north by Amundsen, Shackleton and other adventurers. During the 18th century, it was a whaling centre, until the Bowhead whale was hunted to near extinction. In the 19th century, with the discovery of coal, it became a mining town. The surrounding peaks are scattered with disused shafts, old industrial equipment and the disintegrating trellises that once carried buckets of coal down to the harbour. Now the islands' main industry is science, and the mountains and glaciers are home to numerous satellite installations, radar outposts, antenna fields and observatories.
The largest building on the archipelago is the copper-clad Science Centre in Longyearbyen, designed by Jarmund/Vigsnæs, the ridges of which mimic the surrounding mountains. It houses the University of Svalbard, the Svalbard Museum and the Norwegian Polar Institute. Like most of the buildings in Svalbard, it is raised off the ground: 390 steel poles ensure that the heat of the building does not melt the permafrost, causing it to subside. In contrast to the stark simplicity of the Seed Vault, the building has an expressive, parametric feel; its jaunty facades confront the elements like a series of snow ploughs, the result of 3D simulations that tested wind direction and speed, and are designed to avoid the build-up of snowdrifts.
Cecilie von Quillfeld, the head of the Svalbard Division of the Norwegian Polar Institute, which is housed in the Science Centre, explains that the primary focus of research in the archipelago concerns the effects of climate change and ocean-borne pollutants on the Arctic. "We do see reduction of glaciers and sea ice," she says. "It's not only the area but the age of the ice that is very important, and it's getting younger and younger. This means it melts earlier and freezes later, so you have longer periods free of ice, which of course affects the ecosystem." A ship, she says, recently went through the Northeast Passage for the first time, and scientists are already making impact assessments in anticipation of a commercial summer route across the Arctic Ocean. Longyearbyen might turn from a remote outpost into a busy port.
In anticipation of the dangers of global warming, the Seed Vault was built 130m above sea level. "We ensured that it was high enough so that it would not be affected by the most drastic global warming imaginable, where every bit of ice on earth melts," says Fowler. "We're above that level, and above what we believe would happen even if there were tsunamis after all the ice melts." Even if the vault's cooling equipment fails, he says, the permafrost in the mountain would keep the seeds safe at a temperature of -4 degrees centigrade for 200 years.
Beyond the Arctic, in the world's food basins, Fowler anticipates new weather patterns that plants will struggle to adapt to and an explosion of pests and diseases that will wipe out entire crops. "Our model [of climate change] indicates major problems within 20 years," Fowler says, "just because of the modest changes that will occur in that time period – for example, a 25 percent decline in maize production in southern Africa, if we still have the same varieties. That would be a world food crisis. And crops such as that take about 10 years, in terms of breeding new varieties."
"That's why we're doing what we're doing," he adds. "And we really don't have a lot of time."