It sounds like something out of a fantasy novel: a cavernous vault built into the heart of a frozen mountain on a remote arctic island, protecting the seeds of the future. Its single door, surrounded by snow and permafrost, looks downslope at the icy Greenland Sea. Inside, a long hallway leads to the mountain’s interior and rooms with neatly stacked shelves, housing thousands of boxes of seeds. These seeds are intended as the world’s backup copy of plant genetics and food resources. This is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.
What’s in a Seed Bank
A seed vault, also called a seed bank or genebank, is a place where seeds are collected and kept at below-freezing temperatures to increase their storage life. Seed banks exist for a lot of reasons, but the most important among them is sustainability. As plant diversity shrinks on the farm and in the wild, seed banks have sprouted up, focusing on the preservation of native, edible, and medicinal (or, as at Svalbard, all of the above) plant species in order to preserve their genetic wealth and curb extinction.
At current count, the vault has an inventory of 933,304 varieties, and plans to acquire many more. Built by the Kingdom of Norway in 2007 with the intention of creating an insurance plan for the world’s seed banks, this vault has the capacity to hold 4.5 million crop varieties and up to 2.5 billion total seeds. It already houses the largest collection of food crops and aspires to collect samples of as many plant varieties as it can.
Plant Diversity Protectors
Norway partners with the nonprofit Crop Trust to fund and maintain the Svalbard Seed Vault. They chose this remote site for its arctic climate, geological stability, isolation from human populations, and accessibility. Svalbard is the northernmost land mass with year-round inhabitants, an airport that has daily incoming flights, and services like schools and a hospital. It has a number of small settlements and one larger one - Longyearbyen (population 2,144). Longyearbyen is also the farthest north you can go out for sushi!
Crop Trust’s primary focus is on the sustainability of plant diversity. The seed vault plays an important role in this effort by providing a place for seed banks around the world to store spare sets of seeds – a seed bank’s seed bank, if you will. This way, the Svalbard Vault reduces the amount of time needed to replenish and manage their seed collection. Their single purpose is to gather as many seeds as possible and store them in optimal conditions until a withdrawal is needed.
Inside of a mountain, the vault is protected from physical threats such as natural disasters or radiation from nuclear war. Its walls are insulated by permafrost, which offsets cooling costs. To stay viable, the seeds must be kept at -18 degrees Celsius (around 0° F). Holding at -4° C or lower, the surrounding permafrost is expected to keep the seeds at near-optimal temperatures, even in the event of a power outage (temporary or permanent).
Despite the uphill battle of promoting biological sustainability that all seed banks engage in, one of their greatest hurdles is funding. Most of them don’t get enough, making their collections only as strong as their weakest freezer. Mismanagement also closes down seed banks. And, while it may seem overly apocalyptic to boast that their vault is more fortified from things like nuclear war than most other seed banks (and that parts of their collection could last for hundreds – possibly thousands – of years without humans), the folks at Svalbard may have a point. Seed banks are not immune to the travesties of war, as ICARDA’s Syrian seed bank learned when they took a withdrawal from their Svalbard deposits following an emergency evacuation of their Aleppo headquarters in 2015.
Seeds for the Future
While no one knows what the future holds, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault isn’t taking any chances. Few structures in our modern landscape embody such long-range vision - so much so that its stockpile of seeds secreted away in an arctic mountain recalls the mystique of a pharaoh’s tomb.
But at Svalbard, the deep past and the deep future meet underneath the permafrost. The magic of this vault is not its ability to preserve, but its effort to propel. In order to mean much of anything to the future, these tiny, vulnerable seeds must sprout back to life as they have done year after year for millennia.
Grow your own garden using a variety of genetically diverse seeds - read more here!