The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is the world's greatest repository of seeds. It has about 860,000 samples from most of the countries in the world stored in a facility cloaked in permafrost, 800 miles beyond the rim of the Arctic Circle on a Norwegian archipelago. Even if electricity failed, its location means the specimens kept within the vault could survive at least two centuries.

The more than 4,000 plant species kept here provide a "global backstop" for the world's biodiversity in the face of climate change and other dramatic transformations on the planet. So it is conspicuous that, for the first time, the Norwegian-run facility will open the vault to remove some of its contents.

The International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (or ICARDA), which was forced to relocate from the Syrian city of Aleppo to Beirut in 2012, requested almost 130 boxes out of the 325 it had deposited in the Svalbard vault, according to Reuters. ICARDA's temporary unit in the Lebanese capital was only partially functioning, and it needed these samples as part of "its role as a hub to grow seeds and distribute them to other nations," the news agency explained.

The organization's research in part focuses on cultivating crops that can cope with shifting climate patterns in particularly dry areas of Africa, the Middle East and Australia. This vital work was interrupted by the horrors of the Syrian conflict, which has leveled swaths of Aleppo, once Syria's most populous city and its economic center.

Some of the world's first grains and cereals are thought to have been cultivated in the Levant, including Syria's river valleys, a cradle of civilization now rent asunder by war.