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Freezing Future: Inside Chang La, India’s Doomsday Vault In The Himalayas

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault recently celebrated the 10th anniversary of its official opening in 2008. Built by the Norwegian Government on a remote island deep inside the Arctic Circle, this fail-safe repository houses the planet’s largest collection of seeds that come from nearly every country in the world, including varieties of staple crops like maize, rice, wheat, barley, and more.

The idea behind this invaluable vault is to safeguard the world’s flora from global catastrophes, both natural and man-made. For instance, if nuclear war, coastal inundation, prolonged drought or plagues of pests leads to extinction of crop species in the future, governments will be able to request seeds from the vault to revive their agricultural sector.

Little wonder that the Svalbard Vault is referred to as the world’s doomsday vault. Interestingly, few people know that India too has its own doomsday vault and that its located in the snowy heights of the Himalayas.

Perched at at a height of 17,300 feet above sea level, India’s doomsday vault lies in Chang La (a high-altitude mountain pass in Ladakh) and is the ultimate insurance policy for the country’s food supply, offering options for future generations to overcome the challenges of climate change and population growth.

Built jointly by the Defence Institute of High Altitude Research (DIHAR) and the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources (NBPGR) in 2010 under the aegis of Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), this permafrost seed bank is the second largest in the world.

It stores over 5,000 seed accessions (one accession consists of a set of seeds of a particular species collected from different geographical and demographic locations). These seeds — apricots, cabbage, carrots, potatoes, radish, tomatoes, barley, rice wheat, etc — have been prioritised for qualities such yield or resistance to temperature, pests or humidity.

Interestingly, the idea for a high altitude seed vault in Ladakh emerged after a mysterious locust invasion devastated the barley crop in the region!

As for why Chang La, the high-altitude mountain pass remains shrouded in snow for about nine months a year and there is little chance of ice-melt damaging the vault. The fact that its well above the sea level and tectonically stable ensures that its protected from ocean flooding, even in the worst case scenarios.


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