07/10/2012 10:06 am ET

'Doomsday' Svalbard Global Seed Vault Protects World's Food Supply (PHOTOS)

On a desolate Arctic island off the coast of Norway is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a repository with the capacity to hold up to 2.25 billion seeds in the event of a "doomsday" catastrophe.

When the vault was first built in 2006, more than 100 countries contributed seeds. The concrete building is outfitted with steel airlock doors, fencing and a guard system. At the time of its opening, a BBC article said its backers called it "the most secure building of its type in the world."

The same article also revealed that seeds are packed in special four-ply packets and heat sealed to keep out moisture. They're then kept at temperatures of minus 18 degrees Celcius, which could help the seeds last hundreds or even thousands of years. Even if the cooling system were to fail, the mountain's permafrost would keep the seeds' temperature from rising above freezing.

A recent article by National Geographic offers a look into the remote facility, operated by the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which in an era of climate change and changing farming preferences may be saving the seeds for something other than asteroid impacts and nuclear war:

"I'd say doomsday is happening everyday for crop varieties," said Cary Fowler, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which helps manage the facility. "Lots of people think that this vault is waiting for doomsday before we use it. But it's really a backup plan for seeds and crops. We are losing seed diversity every day and this is the insurance policy for that."

What does seed diversity mean? A single crop of wheat, for instance, may have 200,000 different varieties, each one with its own traits. One might grow better in high temperatures, another in low. How it fares during droughts and against disease are also determined by its variety.

Fowler also explained to The New York Times why it's important to maintain this diversity:

Conserving the plants that feed us -- our crops -- is a distinct challenge because it is not the species, but the genetic diversity within species that is the focus. And the “use value,” another hotly contested topic, is undisputed: it is a simple fact that without access to crop diversity, we will not be able to grow the food we require in the future. Diversity is a prerequisite for crop improvement and adaptation.

Take a quick tour of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in the gallery below.