Siberian Permafrost Caves to Preserve a "Noah's Ark" of Rare Seeds - Atlas Obscura
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Siberian Permafrost Caves to Preserve a “Noah’s Ark” of Rare Seeds

Yakustk Kingdom of Permafrost Tourist Center (photograph by Alex Cheban)

Yakutsk, the largest city built on continuous permafrost, is the coldest major city in the world. There are several institutions there dedicated to the study of this unique ecology, including the Institute for Biological Problems of Cryolithozone (IBPC) and the Melnikov Permafrost Institute, part of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Yakutsk is also home to the Kingdom of Permafrost, a tourist attraction so cold that visitors are given warm coats and boots before entering.

Now, as reported by Siberian Times, IBPC scientists are utilizing Yakutsk’s naturally frigid permafrost caves for cryostorage, entering the second phase of their ”Noah’s Ark” project to preserve millions of the world’s rarest plants. 

In Yakustk cryostorage facility (photograph by Alexey Shein of the IBPC)

The Yakutsk cryostorage facility is the result of 35 years of studies to determine the optimal temperature to preserve seeds without impacting their ability to germinate, and to develop ways to keep that temperature constant. Efim Khlebnyy, Senior Researcher at the IPBC, told Atlas Obscura in an email: “We developed a new technology of cold accumulation during winter (the average winter temperature in Yakutsk is –51.4ºC), using a special ventilation system and other techniques, which made it possible to keep constant temperatures of about –8 ºC all year without any electricity or use of external supplies.”


(photograph by Alexey Shein of the IBPC)

The center opened in December of 2012 with 11,000 seeds from common Yakutsk crops, as well as endemic, rare, and endangered species. The next phase of the project aims to compile an additional 1.5 million seeds from Russia and beyond, safeguarding the world’s plants for up to 100 years against natural disasters and climate change. 


(photograph by Alexey Shein of the IBPC)

This facility is unique because it requires no artificial cooling methods, therefore using little to no energy to run. Other similar cryostorage centers do exist, such as the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway, but, as Nikolai Goncharov of the Institute of Cytology and Genetics told Siberian Times, “When global temperatures get warmer by five degrees, the glaciers on Svalbard will melt. To melt the permafrost in Yakutia, temperatures need to rise by about 20 degrees.” He further describes the Yakutsk facility as “‘an eternal, and environmentally-friendly, system that cannot be affected by any disaster.”


(photograph by Alexey Shein of the IBPC)