The Seed Vault That May One Day Save The World

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If our planet ever goes to ruin, it’s good to know there’s a place squirreling away the world’s seeds. Located deep inside a mountain just north of the Arctic Circle, it’s known as the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Here in an icy chamber, duplicates of close to a million seeds are stored in the largest secure seed storage facility of its kind.

THE ULTIMATE INSURANCE POLICY

In a world of increasing instability, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault offers the ultimate life insurance policy. Its mission is simple. Designed to safeguard the world’s crops from large-scale natural or man-made disasters, it’s a backup for the global food supply.

We have the Norwegian government and Cary Fowler, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust to thank for the idea. In the early 2000s, they recognized that the world’s gene banks were inherently vulnerable. Given that most of the world’s population depended on agriculture for survival, it seemed prudent to preserve seeds. They hit on Svalbard as the answer.

WHY SVALBARD?

Situated north of Europe midway between mainland Norway and the North Pole, Svalbard is a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean. One of the world’s northernmost inhabited places, the area boasts rugged mountains, fjords and frozen tundra providing refuge to polar bears, reindeer and the Arctic fox.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the islands served as an international whaling base. But in the early 1900s, they turned mainly to mining coal.  

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Polar bears are the iconic symbol of Spitsbergen

Of the four main islands, the largest one is Spitsbergen, which accounts for more than half of the area. Most of the archipelago’s small population lives here in Longyearbyen, a small coal-mining town.

The colorful houses of Spitsbergen’s largest settlement, Longyearbyen 

And just a little over a decade ago, the residents welcomed the Svalbard Global Seed Vault as their new neighbor.

Svalbard was chosen for several reasons. Not only was its remote location ideal, but its Arctic climate and year round frozen ground made it perfect for underground cold storage. Construction of the facility began in June 2006 in an abandoned coal mine deep inside Spitsbergen’s Plateau Mountain. Surrounded by thick rock and permafrost, the completed vault had the capacity to store 4.5 million different crop varieties. 

‘It is the best insulated freezer in the world,’ said Cary Fowler.

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Credit: Matthias Heyde

EXPLORING OUR SEEDS’ UNDERGROUND WORLD 

Like many out-of-the-way places, the only visible part of the 10,764 square foot facility is its entrance. Formed out of dark grey concrete, the minimalist lobby juts horizontally out of the mountain. Inside, a massive tube of corrugated steel pipe leads down into the permafrost to three separate but identical chambers.

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Credit: Matthias Heyde

According to the Crop Trust, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault currently houses more than 980,000 samples. Originating from almost every country in the world, they include tens of thousands of essential crops such as beans, wheat and rice as well as many unique food varieties. To ensure their survival, each species is stored in boxes behind heavy locked doors in custom, four-ply aluminum packets. 

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Credit: Matthias Heyde

BANKING AT THE SEED VAULT

So how does it work? It helps to think of the Svalbard Seed Vault in terms of a bank. For example, the vault is owned by the country it’s located in (Norway) and the depositors (global gene banks) own the contents of the boxes. However, seeds are accepted only a few days a year.

Moreover, the seeds are not ‘originals’, but copies of seeds belonging to the depositing gene banks. Anyone who wants access to the seeds, such as plant researchers, farmers or other groups, must request seed samples through the donor gene banks. No one can access the site directly.

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Credit: The International Institute of Tropical Agriculture i Nigeria (IITA)

In fact, the state-of-the-art and fully automated seed bank has no permanent staff on site. Instead, the vault is monitored remotely.  Even so, Spitsbergen residents check in on it regularly.

ARTISTIC LICENSE

Despite the fact that the seed vault is not open to the public, a piece of art nevertheless embellishes the roof of its lobby. Created by Norwegian artist Dyveke Sanne, it is called ‘Perpetual Repercussion.’ Composed of stainless steel triangles, mirrors and prisms, the unusual piece reflects the Arctic light back out into space in an ever-changing composition.

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Credit: Mari Tefre/Svalbard Globale frøhvelv

OUR FUTURE

A feasibility study, undertaken prior to construction, determined that the Svalbard Global Seed Vault could preserve most major crops’ seeds for centuries. And some important grains could survive even longer, possibly for thousands of years.

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THE FIRST EVER WITHDRAWAL

In 2015, the civil war in Syria prompted the first ever withdrawal from the Svalbard Seed Vault. Researchers took 38,000 seeds out of the vault to replace crops that had been diminished in the conflict. Read about it and view coverage here at cnn.com. 

Construction of the $9 million facility was funded by the Norwegian government. The facility is now managed by the Ministry of Agriculture and Food on behalf of the kingdom of Norway in coordination with the Nordic Gene Resource Center and the Global Crop Diversity Trust. Recently, Norway announced they will spend close to $13 million dollars to upgrade the 10-year-old facility. 

To learn more about the Global Seed Vault and take a virtual tour of the facility visit the Crop Diversity Trust.

 

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About carole funger

I'm a garden designer and Maryland Master Gardener living in the Washington, DC area. I blog about new trends in horticulture, inspiring gardens to visit and the latest tips and ideas for how to nurture your own beautiful garden. Every garden tells a story. What's yours?

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