The Svalbard Global Seed Vault sits north of the Arctic Circle, around 800 miles from the North Pole. Its lone entrance tunnel emerges from a bleak mountainside more like a science fiction set or James Bond lair than a plant repository. Built as a safeguard against crop failure from violent catastrophe, climate change or more mundane factors such as disease that could bring humanity to the brink of starvation, the seed bank is a vital tool for conservation of plant species.
History of the Seed Vault
The global seed vault, situated on an island in Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, opened its doors in February 2008. It is managed by the Norwegian government, Crop Trust and the Nordic Genetic Resource Centre. In its first year of operation, the vault gathered seeds from 90,000 food crop seed samples from sources outside the Nordic Gene Bank’s collection, bringing the total in storage to 400,000.
As of 2013, a paper in PLoS One estimated that the inventory deposited by 53 individual gene banks represented “more than one third of the globally distinct accessions of 156 crop genera stored in [all global] genebanks as orthodox seeds.”
At the vault’s 10th anniversary last year, total holdings were counted at 983,524 accessions with 76 institutes depositing seeds. During 2018 alone, 30 gene banks and institutes deposited 92,638 precious seed samples — the busiest year since 2011.
What Is Stored in the Vault?
The global seed vault is home to 32 varieties of potato, alongside more than one-third of the planet’s most important food crop varieties. Focusing primarily on important crop species that maintain food production and are necessary to sustain viable agriculture, the vault contains around 150,000 samples of wheat and rice, plus around 80,000 samples of barley. Other species include sorghum, maize, soybean and oats.
Each sample comprises 500 seeds, quadruple-wrapped in foil packets and stored in large plastic totes. According to Farm Journal’s AgPro magazine, the facility can hold up to 2.25 billion seeds in total, representing around 4.5 million crop varieties.
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is described as a “black box” holding facility, where the foil packets act as the reserve in case holdings at other seed banks across the world fail. Seeds will only be accessed under extreme need, when the original holdings have been destroyed. Furthermore, there will only be three dates during 2019 — in March, June and October — when the vault will open for new submissions.
How Are the Seeds Kept Safe?
It seems a little incongruous that the world’s agricultural crop diversity reserve is held in such barren surroundings. Although there is plant life on the island, none grows taller than around 4 inches (10 centimeters) due to short growing season, terrain and fierce wind.
However, the vault’s situation — near Longyearbyen, the world’s most northerly settlement — also affords unique security for agricultural crop diversity, according to National Geographic. Not only is the location seismically stable and unlikely to be at risk of rising oceans or flooding, but the permafrost that the vault is built into helps provide the best conditions for keeping the foil packets of seeds viable. With additional cooling in the entrance tunnel, added to the vault’s infrastructure after a 2016 leak from thawing permafrost, the vault stays at a constant -0.4 degrees F (-18 degrees C). With the vaults lying 397 feet (120 meters) deep into the rock, Crop Trust noted that the vaults stay frozen naturally without the need for power.
The Verge also noted that although climate change has reached the global seed vault, it has so far stayed safe from conflict or political instability; in 2015, the first withdrawal of seeds helped replace those lost from the Aleppo seed bank during the Syrian civil war. Crop Trust described this as only the second but the largest withdrawal. Returning seeds safely to Middle East researchers further highlighted the importance of the global seed vault.
This importance is well-recognized in security systems that protect the facility; The New York Times reported that no one person possesses all the entry codes to the seed vaults. When it comes to conservation of plant species, nobody holds all the keys to the pantry.