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A Visit To The Doomsday Vault

Saving Seeds In Doomsday Vault
Saving Seeds In Doomsday Vault 12:41

60 Minutes is going to take you on a journey to the end of the earth to show you a place that might someday save humankind. It's a bank built to last 10,000 years. But as correspondent Scott Pelley explains, it's not money or gold that's on deposit. Currencies rise and fall with civilizations.

60 Minutes was there last month, when the world's most important assets were made safe from climate change and nuclear war, locked deep inside the doomsday vault.

Head towards the top of the planet, over the freezing Arctic Ocean, and you'll a find a collection of ice-covered islands called "Svalbard," Norwegian for "cold coast."

The islands are due north of Europe, administered by Norway, and among the last bits of land before the North Pole.

Down on the water is the northernmost town in the world, Longyearbyen, with about 2,000 people. But polar bears outnumber the people, and reindeer outnumber everything. It's an otherworldly place, a twilight zone, where, sometimes, the sun never rises and the moon never sets. In the dead of winter, it was the last stop in the 30-year journey of American scientist Cary Fowler.

Fowler admits it's "a world away" from his native Tennessee.

Asked if he ever worried that the project wouldn't get this far, Fowler admits, "I was worrying all the time. But here we are."

From the outside, the vault looks like a concrete wedge pounded into a mountain. But as you walk through the door, you cross from a hostile wasteland into a safe house for humanity.

"Well, I've got to say, it looks like a doomsday vault," Pelley remarks.

"It probably is one. At least we think if there are any big problems on the outside, this is going to survive," Fowler says. "We built it to last as long as we could imagine. I don't know what was in the minds of the people who built the pyramids. Maybe they were building to last forever too. But I can't think of anything that's built in our lifetime that's been built with this kind of time horizon."

Inside, pipes provide additional refrigeration, despite the fact the vault is only several hundred miles from the North Pole. "We're going freeze it even further," Fowler explains.

They freeze it colder than the permafrost, so that if the earth warms and the power goes out, the vault will stay frozen for another 25 years.

The treasures that the vault was built to house came by plane and approached an airstrip at the base of the mountain nearby. What's in the boxes took 10,000 years to develop and 70 years to collect. Now they were loaded for the last mile to Fowler's frozen Fort Knox.

"This is the coldest place in the mountain. We wanted to take advantage of the naturally frozen temperatures down here. We wanted absolutely the coldest spot we could find," Fowler explains. "It's cold. It's getting colder actually…. And these are air locked doors. It keeps the cold air in."

Inside the boxes that came off the plane are millions of silver envelopes, containing seeds of everything from chickpeas to wheat.

Officially, the seed bank is the "Svalbard Global Seed Vault." It's built to warehouse backup copies of all the world's crops - 1.5 billion seeds - including everything from California sunflowers to ancient Chinese rice. If an asteroid strikes the earth, seeds to restart agriculture would come from the vault. But science fiction aside, the main purpose is to protect against a doomsday that is unfolding right now because the plants we've been eating for 10,000 years are going extinct.

"If you ask somebody 'How many kinds of apples are there?' They're going to say 'Well, there's red, there's green. There's yellow. There's Macintosh. There's Golden Delicious.' They're going to give you an answer like that," Fowler says.

"Maybe 25, I would guess," Pelley remarks.

"Good guess. But in fact, in the 1800s in the United States people were growing 7,100 named varieties of apples. 7,100 different varieties of apples that are catalogued," Fowler explains.

"And how many are there today?" Pelley asks.

"We've lost about 6,800 of those, so the extinction rate for apples varieties in the United States is about 86 percent," he explains.

Extinction exists in all crops. Estimates are that every day one crop strain disappears. And here's why: seeds used to be passed down through families. But today, farmers are planting mass-produced industrial seeds. The upside is more food. The downside is the family variety goes extinct.

To understand the danger of disappearing crops, 60 Minutes visited a U.S. government storehouse in Idaho, where Mike Bonman watches over America's collection of wheat seeds.

"We have in this room more than 50,000 different what we call accessions or collections of wheat from around the world," Bonman explains.

Most countries collect seeds in banks for safe keeping. And for 110 years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has sent scientists, called "plant explorers," to the ends of the earth to collect seeds. If there's an Indiana Jones of plant explorers, his name was Jack Harlan, who made one of his greatest finds in the 1940's.

"This is PI178383," Bonman says, referring to a wild variety of wheat growing in Turkey. "An old farmer variety that had probably been grown for thousands of years."

In the field, the wheat looked dreadful. Harlan wrote in his journal "it was…hopelessly useless." Useless for food, but, as it turned out, inside these seeds is a superhero for fighting wheat disease. Today, the genes of humble PI178383 are a foundation of agriculture-bred into much of the bread we eat.

"That's why you have to collect everything. Because just by looking at the material in a farmer's field you might say, 'That one's no good. Don't collect it." But you can't anticipate what value that might have. There may be genes in that material that are gonna be of immense value in the future," Bonman says.

In the past, plant diseases caused mass starvation - think of the Irish potato famine. Today, scientists prevent famines by going through tens of thousand of plants looking for genes to fight disease or drought or any other problem. Turns out some of the rarest and most valuable seeds are stored in some of the most unstable places.

"There was an important seed bank in Afghanistan," Pelley remarks.

"That's right. It's been destroyed. In the chaos following the fighting there, it was looted and destroyed," Fowler says.

The Afghan seeds were thrown away because looters wanted the glass jars they were kept in. Much of Iraq's seed collection was lost in that war and, in the Philippines, a typhoon washed away much of the world's most important rice bank.

"Doomsday doesn't have to come in the form of an asteroid. Doomsday can come in the form of an equipment failure or mismanagement just human mismanagement or a lack of funding or a typhoon, or something like that. And those kinds of things are happening all the time," Fowler says.

Once that crop is lost, Fowler says we'll never see it again. "And any kind of characteristic that it might have had is gone. It's off the artist's palate. It's the color that we can't use anymore. It may have the disease or pest resistance that we absolutely need to have a viable crop in the future. Gone."

Cary Fowler runs the Global Crop Diversity Trust set up by the United Nations and a group called Bioversity International. His safe house cost $9 million. Norway paid for construction, Bill Gates paid for the shipping, and seeds from nearly every nation on earth are locked inside.

Svalbard may seem a strange place to build an ark for plants. The islands are a white desert, barren and chilled to 30 below zero. The sun never comes up over the horizon in the wintertime. It's ironic that the world's agricultural heritage is being stored in a place with no agriculture at all.

But the mountains are just the place to save the resources of life itself-remote from nuclear war, from storms, and rising seas.

"These resources stand between us and catastrophic starvation on a scale we cannot imagine. And we now have, I think, kind of a perfect storm hitting agriculture," Fowler says.

That "perfect storm" is crop extinction, a world population growing 50 percent in the next 50 years and global warming.

At the University of Washington, Professor David Battisti says in 100 years, farmers will face temperatures unlike any in human history and more like millions of years ago.

What were conditions like then?

"Let me describe it this way, you have crocodiles in Ellesmere Island, which is in the edge of the Arctic. You have palm trees in Wyoming," Battisti explains.

Battisti's data come from the Nobel Prize winning climate research of the U.N. His work is funded by the National Science Foundation.

Battisti projects that droughts of the past will pale in comparison to what he believes is coming.

"If you think about the Dust Bowl in the U.S., and you think 'Well there was a decade where you had on the average of maybe five percent reduction in precipitation, you know, for the growing season,'" he says. "Southern California, the Caribbean, Southern Europe, Northern Africa, Central Asia, all these places, 100 years from now, will typically experience on average 20 to 30 percent reduction in precipitation, right? So that's five times the Dust Bowl."

Whether it's a dry climate, a new virus, or infestation, the genes to stop a famine may be in one of the boxes stored in the vault. When the last of the seeds descends the tunnel, the lights will go out, the vault will be locked, and Cary Fowler will have achieved his life's work-preserving civilization's past against an uncertain future.

"So, if worst comes to worst this does save the world," he says. "But it also has a more mundane feature which is that it helps us everyday by feeding people."

Produced by Shawn Efran and Catherine Herrick

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