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When The Earth Ark Project is mentioned to people they usually respond with a statement that there are already are seed banks with all the seeds already stored in permanently safe places. There are many commercial seed banks and there is a famous seed bank at Svaldbard Global Seed Vault (78.2363, 15.4941) in the islands north of Norway. See construction photos.

Seeds are sometimes buried by squirrels and when the seeds happen to be in a naturally cold and protected environment the they may remain viable for thousands of years. Discover magazine has an article Flowers regenerated from 30,000 year old frozen fruits buried by ancient squirrels.

Over millennia, the squirrel’s burrow fossilised and was buried under increasing layers of ice. The plants within were kept at a nippy -7 degrees Celsius, surrounded by permanently frozen soil and the petrifying bones of mammoths and woolly rhinos. They never thawed. They weren’t disturbed. By the time they were found and defrosted by scientists, they had been buried to a depth of 38 metres, and frozen for around 31,800 years.

The Svaldbard Global Seed Vault is sometimes billed as a Doomsday recovery vault filled with all the seeds needed to recover the Earth, but this is an error for several reasons. The location isn’t a natural deep freeze cold storage vault but only an icebox temperature. The local stone in which the vaults are located have a temperature only 3°C below freezing and the recommended temperature for long term seed storage is at least 20°C colder. Therefore, they should refrigerate the vaults to maintain colder temperatures.

Svalbard weather in detailSvalbard weather averages shows 3 months above freezing. click-big

The Svaldbard location is high latitude at 78°N, but it isn’t particularly cold even in the winter, because it is in the Gulf Stream of warm water coming there from the Caribbean Sea, and in the summer the minimum temperature is above freezing for more than three months with an average maximum at 55°F. Even on the coldest night of the year the temperature doesn’t drop to the long term seed storage recommendations. With global warming the sea around Svalbard has no sea-ice which can be seen in the photos below and local temperatures are certain to rise even further.

A second major problem is that in a major social disruption the site, being close to a city, is subject to looting. That is an insignificant problem during peaceful times but the seed vault in Leningrad was almost looted during WW II by starving people for the food value of the seeds stored there. Svalbard has protective devices which are presently adequate but only if the local police are available to suppress normal thefts. It is unrealistic to expect 24 hour a day protection for thousands of years, and at present they say there are no guards there at all. In a stressful time an intruder need only tunnel through the sandstone to the vaults themselves to defeat even sophisticated deterrents.

Another great lacking of Svaldbard is the small number of the Earth’s plant species it even attempts to save. This is intended as a saving location for commercial and potentially economically useful plants. The Earth is thought to have a hundred million species, but this facility is proud to claim only thirty thousand of that total number. They are intended to be good selections, but it is impossible to know the complexity of an ecosystem and some unknown virus or plant totally unrelated to any stored seed might be critical to a particular ecosystem. Thus soil samples as well as seed samples are needed for every local system where the seed it intended to grow.

Another grim possibility for this particular Doomsday seed vault is that in a  major war it is a target for an atomic bomb attack. The seed vault itself isn’t a target but it is less than a kilometer from the airport which is a major target for any transpolar attacking airplane because it is the only place to land an airplane other than Thule Air Force Base, which is obviously a first strike location.

Svalbard airport and Svalbard seed bankThe Svalbard airport and Svalbard seed bank are only 1km apart
Svalbard vault and Svalbard air terminalWinter photo of Svalbard vault and Svalbard air terminal with liquid ocean.

This photo shows how close the seed vault entrance is to warm water, a city with potential looters and a major military target in the event of an atomic war. It would be safe from a Hiroshima size bomb but would be within the fire ball of a larger H-bomb exploded on the runway, and totally destroyed.

An Earth Ark would avoid all of those problems if it were located near the top of Vinson Massive in Antarctica. It is very cold there and without any refrigeration would remain at minus 40°C for thousands of years. It is so remote from humans or animals that no one would every go there except to recover seeds. It is as remote from any combat zone as any place on Earth. It should be possible to air drop containers of seeds to the location from airplanes departing from McMurdo station.

Mail you local seeds to The Earth Ark at McMurdo, Antarctica