Inside the Doomsday Seed Vault

Deep within the Arctic Circle, on the frozen island of Spitsbergen in the Norwegian Svalbard archipelago, is a giant vault. It’s something you’d half expect to find in a Bond movie: set 120 metres (394 feet) inside a mountain, it’s the site of an old coal mine and boasts some formidable security features that include reinforced concrete walls, dual blast-proof doors, motion sensors and airlocks.

The island’s remote location, just 1,300 kilometres (808 miles) from the North Pole, its inhospitable climate and treacherous terrain make monitoring human activity in the area relatively easy. The 1,750 banks from around the world, which have made hundreds of thousands of deposits to this vault, can sleep easy knowing their investments are secure. But this is no safe house for cash or gold, or a financial institution of any kind.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is a giant repository for the world’s seed crops, an effort on the part of several multinational corporations and governments to protect future crop diversity. This includes the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation along with a conglomerate of corporations with agricultural interests known as the Global Crop Diversity Trust, and the Ministry of Agriculture and Food on behalf of the Norwegian government.

Svalbard is an ideal choice for the vault’s location as a kind of fail-safe, should worldwide seed banks fail. It’s remote, but has good infrastructure and a ready supply of coal to power the facility. The sandstone the vault is set into is low in radiation and stable, plus it’s very cold, so the rooms will remain cold even if the refrigeration units fail.

Doomsday Seed Vault
Inside the Doomsday Seed Vault (click to zoom)

How does it protect our food?

Doomsday Seed Vault
Each seed sample is preserved inside heat-sealed, four-ply aluminium bags

Last year, around 10,000 new varieties of food crop seeds were added to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault from over 100 countries all over the world, bringing the total number of seed samples contained within the vault to over 835,000. But if these are being already grown in the countries they’re native to, what’s the point in a worldwide seed vault? In the event of natural disaster or civil war destroying crops, the seed vault provides a back-up for the seed banks in that country – and we’ve already seen it prove its worth as a contingency: the Philippines national seed bank was damaged by flooding and then fire, while Afghan and Iraqi banks have been wiped out by wars in those regions. Anyone who wants access to the seeds, such as plant breeders or researchers, must go through the seed bank that made the deposit: even though the vault is managed by the Norwegian government, the depositors retain sole ownership of the seeds.

Preserving our food future

Duplicate samples of seeds from national seed banks are stored in sealed aluminium bags that exclude moisture, then shelved in itemised containers, the contents of which are recorded and held on a database maintained by the Norwegian authorities. The bedrock that surrounds the vault is a temperature of minus-three degrees Celsius (27 degrees Fahrenheit), although the facility is kept even colder by refrigeration units that chill the seeds to minus-18 degrees Celsius (minus-0.4 degrees Fahrenheit). The island of Spitsbergen is tectonically inactive and even if the ice caps melted, the site lies high enough to remain above sea level. Under these conditions, seeds will remain viable for hundreds or even thousands of years.

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