LONGYEARBYEN, Norway — UN chief Ban Ki-moon visited Wednesday a vault carved into the Arctic permafrost, filled with samples of the world's most important seeds in case food crops are wiped out by a catastrophe.
"The world faces many daunting challenges today, one of the greatest of which is how to feed a growing population in the context of climate change," a bundled-up Ban told reporters after he toured the site in the Svalbard archipelago some 1,200 kilometres (745 miles) from the North Pole.
"The seeds stored here in Svalbard will help us do just that. Sustainable food production may not begin in this cold Arctic environment, but it does begin by conserving crop diversity," he said.
Aimed at safeguarding biodiversity in the face of climate change, wars and other natural and man-made disasters, the seed bank has the capacity to hold up to 4.5 million batches of seeds, or twice the number of crop varieties believed to exist in the world today.
The vault was inaugurated in February 2008, and so far some 25 international and national institutes from 22 countries have deposited some 400,000 batches, according to the Norwegian government.
Overlooking a fjord, the vault forms a long trident-shaped tunnel bored deep into the Svalbard sandstone and limestone.
Metal shelves lining three cold chambers will eventually be stacked with airtight bags filled with seed samples.
After passing through an airlock designed to keep temperatures inside the main vault at minus 18 degrees Celsius (minus 0.4 Fahrenheit), Ban looked on with interest as he was shown plastic boxes filled with samples.
"This site, collated by all the countries, is really creative. I'm inspired by this vision to sustain the world in the future," he said.
He seemed also taken with the chilly temperature in the vault.
"It's very cold, even colder than the Arctic. My lips are frozen."
The UN secretary general is visiting the Arctic to see first-hand the effects of global warming ahead of key international climate talks in Copenhagen in December.
On Tuesday, he visited the Ny-Aalesund climate change research station in Svalbard and saw the polar ice rim aboard a Norwegian coast guard vessel, saying he was "very much alarmed" by the rapid rate of melting ice.