In the bowels of the Arctic, where the polar bear reigns, a remote archipelago contains the ultimate insurance policy that can save us from the apocalypse we are building for ourselves. A beacon of hope and resilience emerges timidly and inconspicuously from the frozen dunes. Its content is more valuable than any jewel and precious stone that humans have ever coveted, for it may determine our survival in an increasingly unstable world.
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, also known as the doomsday vault by some media, is a modern version of Noah’s Ark but, instead of animals, it safeguards millions of seeds of plant species of agricultural and food importance. It operates as a backup storage facility for seeds from all over the world, ensuring s seed supply in case of losses and preserving the genetic diversity of the thousands of plant species that form the basis of agriculture. A diversity that holds the key to gaining an advantage in the face of the complex challenges ahead: increasing crop yields to feed a rapidly growing human population, breeding agricultural varieties that can withstand the climate crisis and increasingly intense and catastrophic droughts…
Many national and regional gene banks have already sent backup copies of their seeds to Svalbard, aware of the numerous threats facing their collections. Wars, revolutions, sabotage, natural disasters, or simply the lack of maintenance, funding, or any system failures in the facilities can lead to the irreparable loss of unique agricultural varieties. In this way, they ensure having a backup to turn to as a last resort to replenish their collections.
Millions of seeds beneath the ice
This unique place was inaugurated on February 26, 2008, with a cost of almost 9 million dollars. Such was its success that just a year after its opening, it was already guarding more than 200 million seeds distributed in 400,000 samples representing a third of the most important agricultural varieties on the planet. This number continued to grow inexorably over the years thanks to the involvement of an increasing number of countries and institutions, both regional and international, and even indigenous communities, such as the Cherokee Nation.
Currently, seed samples triple the 2009 figure and belong to more than 6,000 plant species. Just to name a few examples, there are preserved over 25,000 soybean samples, around 80,000 samples of various barley varieties, and over 150,000 samples of wheat and rice beneath the ice.
The Svalbard Seed Vault is managed through a tripartite agreement signed by the Norwegian government, the Nordic Genetic Resource Center (NordGen), and the organization Global Crop Diversity Trust (Crop Trust). The Ministry of Agriculture and Food on behalf of the Kingdom of Norway owns the facility, NordGen oversees the vault and manages the public database of deposits, and Crop Trust ensures financial backing for the vault while providing logistical and financial assistance to depositors.
Regarding its facilities, the vault consists of only two structures visible from the surface: a modest hut containing the machinery necessary to supply power to the vault and the vault itself, of which only its entrance can be seen—a concrete structure that extends into a frozen sandstone mountain. Both the roof and the facade showcase an intricate hodgepodge of mirrors and triangular stainless steel fragments that reflect the magical polar light during the brief summer months. During winter, a network of cables envelops the complex with a greenish glow, giving it a supernatural appearance. This is an artwork called ‘Perpetual Repercussion’ by the Norwegian artist Dyveke Sanne.
The reinforced doors prevent anyone from entering. Only the spring thaw water dares to infiltrate and disturb the tranquility of this sanctuary. These doors open very rarely since there is no permanent staff working at the facility. They are only opened when maintenance work is required or when seed samples are stored or retrieved.
Beyond the doors begins the path into the depths of the vault, located about 120 m inside the mountain. A modest vestibule leads to an endless descending hallway isolated from the outside by rock walls with a thickness of 40 to 60 m. The hallway opens into a spacious room known as the “Aurora Borealis Room”. A reinforced door separates it from the vault’s sanctum sanctorum: a massive chamber referred to as ‘the Cathedral,’ which branches into three chambers, each 9.5 m wide, 6 m high, and 27 m long.
These chambers safeguard Svalbard’s most valuable treasure: the seed duplicates. Along many shelves are stacked thousands of properly labeled boxes. Each of these rooms can hold up to 3,000 boxes. The second chamber has already reached its maximum capacity. Together, they can accommodate up to 4.5 million seed samples.
In each container, seeds are securely protected within several airtight aluminum bags. Chambers are artificially cooled to -18 ºC, and humidity is kept to minimum levels to minimize the metabolic activity of seeds, ensuring their viability for decades and centuries. Can seeds survive for such a long time under these conditions? We’ll have to wait until the year 2120 to find out, as this marks the conclusion of the ambitious 100-year experiment initiated in 2020. This study evaluates the viability of seeds from 13 plant species commonly found in our crops, such as barley, peas, and wheat, every 10 years over a century, providing precise insights into their potential longevity.
Why in Svalbard?
Why was the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard chosen as the location for the Seed Vault? According to a feasibility study published in 2004, Svalbard was deemed the planet’s site that ensured the highest degree of protection for the insurance policy of humanity’s future.
Svalbard is an archipelago located in the Arctic Ocean, belonging to the Kingdom of Norway since 1920, constituting its northernmost territory. Among its islands, only 3 are inhabited: Spitsbergen, the largest in the archipelago and precisely where the seed vault is located, Bear Island, and Hopen. The most populated settlement in Svalbard, Longyearbyen, is found on the first island, situated just 3 km from the seed vault and hosting the majority of the 3,000 inhabitants across the archipelago. Communication between settlements is notably limited, with roads barely existing, making snowmobiles, airplanes, or boats the primary means of transportation.
In addition to its remoteness, Svalbard is a hazardous region, as it is home to the polar bear (Ursus maritimus), the world’s largest terrestrial carnivore. The population of these bears has been estimated to range between 2,000 to 3,000 individuals. There are virtually more bears than people, which is why no one ventures outside without their rifle.
Precisely due to its geographical isolation, Svalbard became a prime candidate to host the seed vault. Its remote location provides natural protection against natural and human-made disasters and excludes it as a primary target for a terrorist attack or sabotage. The area experiences minimal tectonic and volcanic activity, making the threat of earthquakes or volcanoes practically nonexistent. Additionally, the sandstone mountain housing the vault is stable and acts as a barrier against external radiation.
Furthermore, the geological and climatic conditions facilitate the natural and lasting preservation of seeds. Svalbard’s climate is extremely cold, and the soil is permafrost, i.e., it is permanently frozen. This creates an ideal naturally refrigerated environment for seed storage. If the vault’s electrical supply were to fail, the natural conditions of the environment would prevent the chamber temperatures from reaching concerning levels, as long as climate change does not disrupt these conditions. Speaking of climate change, rising temperatures contribute to polar ice melting and sea-level rise. Could the Svalbard facilities be at risk of flooding? Fortunately, this is highly unlikely because the seed vault is situated more than 100 m above sea level.
Have seeds ever been removed?
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is designed to function as a last-resort source, intended for use in the most catastrophic scenarios. While each depositing entity is the exclusive owner of the content of its boxes, the idea is that they only withdraw their samples in exceptional situations. In other words, every time seed samples are withdrawn, it means that something very bad has happened, something on the scale of the Syrian civil war.
In 2015, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) requested the retrieval of several of its samples when the management of its seed bank in Aleppo, Syria, became untenable due to the war. It was the first and, so far, the only time the vault has been opened to be partially emptied. Some of those samples were successfully grown in Lebanon and Morocco, and the rest were returned to the Norwegian vault.
Svalbard is not only the safeguard ensuring the future of agriculture and food supply. It is also a symbol, a magnificent outcome resulting from international cooperation that has managed to overcome socioeconomic differences and political disagreements. A beacon of hope and a further reminder of the fundamental importance of science.
Crop Trust (2023). Svalbard Global Seed Vault [online] available in: https://www.croptrust.org/work/svalbard-global-seed-vault/
Fowler C, George W, Shands H, Skovmand B (2004). Study to assess the feasibility of establishing a Svalbard Arctic seed depository for the international community. Prepared for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Norway). Å s, Norway: Center for International Environment and Development Studies. Agricultural University of Norway and the Nordic Gene Bank. Available in: https://www.regjeringen.no/globalassets/upload/lmd/kampanjesvalbard/vedlegg/frohvelv_study_to_assess.pdf
NordGen (2020). Svalbard Global Seed Vault commences seed experiment that will last for 100 years [online] available in: https://www.nordgen.org/en/svalbard-global-seed-vault-commences-seed-experiment-that-will-last-for-100-years/
NordGen (2023). Svalbard Global Seed Vault’s Seed Portal [online] available in: https://seedvault.nordgen.org/
Robins-Early N (2015). Syrian war causes the global doomsday seed vault’s first withdrawal. The Huffington Post [online] September 22. Available in: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/global-seed-vault-svalbard-syria_n_560152ebe4b00310edf87694
Walsh B (2009). The planet’s ultimate backup plan: Svalbard. Time [online] February 27. Available in: https://content.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1882288,00.html