Imagine a modern version of Noah’s Ark. In the event of a disaster — natural or man-made — this ark would be the last line of defense against extinction. It would preserve as many species as possible, allowing an opportunity to start over, once the disaster has passed.
Such a defense against Doomsday does not have to be imagined; it exists and currently holds the designated survivors of more than 1 million life forms. Unlike Noah’s floating ark, however, this one is deep within a mountain. Another difference is that it isn’t designed to preserve animals. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault exists to safeguard the plant life of the planet.
The concept of preserving seeds to safeguard against catastrophe is not new. One of the first such efforts is attributed to Russian geneticist and botanist Nikolai Vavilov (1887-1943). He established the Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry (official name: All-Russian Research Institute of Plant Industry) in 1921. By 1940, it housed the world’s largest seed collection.
The scientists at the Institute are famously devoted to the cause of preserving seeds. During the 28-month Siege of Leningrad during World War II, 28 of them chose to starve to death, rather than dip into the seeds that were under their care.
Today, approximately 1,750 seed banks have been established around the world, housing more than 6 million samples for preservation. With nearly 2,000 new plant species being discovered every year and many of the samples being duplicates, only a fraction of the world’s biodiversity has been preserved.
Aside from gathering enough seeds and having sufficient space to house them, the biggest challenge for seed banks is finding a way to preserve the seeds so they can be used, if necessary. This means any good seed bank needs to be able to guard against high temperatures, humidity, contamination, and destruction by whatever it is that caused the global catastrophe to begin with.
Out of this background arose the vision of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.
Svalbard is an archipelago belonging to Norway. It is not a convenient place to visit. Located halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole, it is the furthest north a person can fly on a scheduled commercial flight. Despite the inconvenience of travel, Svalbard is a continuing source of fascinating information and has inspired these Commonplace articles.
Of course, convenience is not the reason this place was chosen for the Global Seed Vault. It is on the island of Spitsbergen and is 130 meters (430 ft) above sea level, guarding against flooding in the event of rising sea levels. The absence of tectonic activity is a definite plus, as well.
The biggest draw for this location is the low temperature. Being well within the Arctic Circle, the site benefits from permafrost, keeping the seed specimens cool. The Nordic Gene Bank recognized the value of the location and in 1984 started storing its collection of seeds in an abandoned coal mine.
The Seed Vault, in contrast, does not simply rely upon the naturally-cold conditions to preserve its contents. Its refrigeration units maintain the internal temperature at a consistent −18 °C (−0.4 °F). Should there be an equipment failure, however, it will be several weeks before the temperature rises to that of the sandstone bedrock’s temperature of −3 °C (27 °F). If the technicians are really backed up and just can’t get around to fixing the air conditioning, it will take an estimated 200 years before the temperature would climb to the sweltering temperature of 0 °C (32 °F).
Construction began on the Seed Vault in 2006, and it was officially opened on February 26, 2008. Built at a cost of 45 million kr (US$8.8 million), the facility has 1,000 m2 (11,000 ft 2) of floor space.
The Seed Vault is designed to preserve samples, each containing approximately 500 seeds of a particular species. These samples are sealed in an airtight aluminum bag.
Upon opening, the facility took possession of 320,549 samples of plant life. By 2019, that number had increased to 992,032. The Seed Vault has enough space to house 4.5 million samples.
The facility is owned by the government of Norway. It functions in a very real sense like a financial bank. The seed samples are the property of the various seed banks around the world that entrust the Seed Vault with their care. Only those who deposit seed samples have access to those particular seeds.
The mission of the Seed Vault is not limited to guarding against a global catastrophe. It serves the more practical function of being a backup to the various seed banks around the world. War, flooding, and fire have damaged or destroyed the seed banks of the Philippines, Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq. When a backup is maintained in Svalbard, it is a comparatively simple thing for the appropriate government to withdraw its deposits, grow a new crop, and return fresh seeds to the Seed Vault once its own seed bank has been replenished.
The interior of the building is rather nondescript. It primarily consists of row after row of shelving units, loaded with boxes of seed samples. It isn’t designed for comfort, and there are no personnel permanently on site. The Seed Vault is opened about three times each year to manage deposits and withdrawals.
The exterior, in contrast, is a sight to behold, particularly at night. Norwegian artist Dyveke Sanne created illuminated artwork named Perpetual Repercussion. The artwork runs the length of the facility’s roof and the front of the entryway. It is designed with mirrors, reflective steel, prism, and fiber optic cables. It stands out as a beacon of light and hope in otherwise desolate surroundings.
Although there is no charge to depositors to store seeds at the Seed Vault, the cost of maintaining the facility run about 2.4 million kr (US$282,000) per year. The Global Crop Diversity Trust provides most of the annual operating costs, and the government of Norway maintains the facility. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation assists the governments of developing countries in packaging and sending seeds to the Seed Vault.