Science-fiction writers have long imagined scenarios involving world catastrophe with hideous consequences for human survivors —water as currency, people processed as food wafers, etc. Not appetizing thoughts in these post-Turkey Day times.

Wild imaginings?

Worldwide catastrophes are possible, and humans are trying in many ways to prepare for survival. Recent news about that comes from Norway.

On an archipelago in the frigid Norwegian Sea, there is a frozen sandstone mountain, and carved into it is a vast, concrete facility known as ”the doomsday vault.” The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is designed to become the world's single largest seed bank, storing up to 4.5 million seed samples from food crops in every region on Earth.

As The Associated Press recently reported, engineers have begun a two-month-long cooling process that will create permanent subzero temperatures in the vault, keeping seeds safe for centuries — some for a thousand years or longer.

Built by the Norwegian government, the vault will begin operations next year with assistance from the Rome-based Global Crop Diversity Trust, an international organization founded in 2004 ”to ensure the conservation and availability of crop diversity for food security worldwide.”

The Global Crop Diversity Trust notes that in addition to threats from nuclear war, pandemics and plant disease, ”an increasingly unpredictable and changing climate, and a world population expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, will place unprecedented demands on agriculture.”

That's a credible expectation that helps to drive a tremendous amount of botanical conservation and research internationally. Among the world's leading players are the Botanical Research Institute of Texas — located in downtown Fort Worth two blocks east of the Bass Performance Hall — and Texas A&M University's Institute for Plant Genomics and Biotechnology, where researchers are advancing crop improvement through biotechnology.

It's important to understand that as extensive a seed collection as the Svalbard vault will contain, seeds for the majority of earth's flora simply cannot be preserved. Tropical plants' seeds do not have dormancy built into them and would be impossible to preserve, notes Sy H. Sohmer, president and director of BRIT, where extensive operations include an herbarium containing documentation of global plant diversity. That collection currently stands at 1.1 million specimens. So farmers conceivably could feed worldwide catastrophe survivors with grains and other food crops, but bananas and tropical fruits in general would be a mere memory.

There's another troubling reality that greatly concerns the GCDT: ”With no secure funding, many of the world's 1,500 (seed banks) know neither what is being stored on their shelves, nor even whether the seed is alive or dead.” That won't be a problem at the Svalbard vault, where detailed information will be kept on the seeds that are stored there.

The question is: Would the world's deeper, darker problems persist? Would post-catastrophe rogue governments allow access to the Svalbard seeds? Would seeds become outlaws' hoarded currency? In the aftermath of nuclear war, what if survivors couldn't find that archipelago? And if they could, how would they find the vault?

A hint: Look for a dazzling light.

According to Science Daily, Norway's requirement that artwork accompany public buildings will result in ”a large, sparkling metallic sculpture by the Norwegian artist Dyveke Sanne that will be incorporated into the mountainside entrance portal of the vault.”

Sanne will use ”multiple pieces of highly polished sheet metal … placed so they will sparkle in the Arctic midnight sun.”

What a sight that will be. What an ending for a sci-fi thriller that we hope will never be written.


Fort Worth Star-Telegram