Svalbard Global Seed Vault, otherwise known as the “Noah’s Ark of Plant Diversity”, is home to what is quite possibly the world’s most important treasures – seeds.
Deep inside a mountain on a remote island in the Svalbard archipelago, halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole, lies the Global Seed Vault. The Global Seed Vault isn’t just a large storage facility for seeds from around the world, but it is protecting the world’s agricultural genetic diversity and protecting future food supply in case of built to stand the test of time and the challenge of natural or man-made disasters.
The Svalbard archipelago, the furthest north reachable on a scheduled flight, was chosen for the vault’s location because it is remote, there are no volcanoes or earthquakes, and the permafrost keeps the seeds in deep-freeze. Svalbard Global Seed Vault’s remote location is 130 metres above sea level, and benefits from permafrost conditions due to natural freezing.
The Seed Vault, carved into virgin solid rock was opened on in 2008. The seed storage area itself is located more than 100 metres inside the mountain, and under layers of rock that range between 40 and 60 metres thick.
Worldwide, more than 1,700 genebanks hold collections of food crops for safekeeping, yet many of these are vulnerable, exposed not only to natural catastrophes and war, but also to avoidable disasters, such as lack of funding or poor management.
According to Svalbard Global Seed Vault, something as mundane as a poorly functioning freezer can ruin an entire collection, and the loss of a crop variety is as irreversible as the extinction of an animal or any form of life.
Operated by The Crop Trust, Svalbard Global Seed Vault represents the world’s largest collection of crop diversity. Currently over a million seeds – each sealed individually in a heatproof packet – are sitting in a permafrost space at the vault. Permafrost and thick rock ensure that the seed samples will remain frozen even without power.
Each country has rights and access to its own seeds, and under a “Black Box System” which is operational at the vault, they are the only ones that can open the boxes and withdraw them.
The samples range from unique varieties of major African and Asian food staples such as maize, rice, wheat, cowpea, and sorghum to European and South American varieties of eggplant, lettuce, barley, and potato.
The Crop Trust say: “The Vault is the ultimate insurance policy for the world’s food supply, offering options for future generations to overcome the challenges of climate change and population growth. It will secure, for centuries, millions of seeds representing every important crop variety available in the world today. It is the final back up.”
Researchers previously withdrew seeds for the first time from the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in 2015. These were used to create seed banks in Morocco and Lebanon after the region’s central seed bank in Aleppo in Syria was damaged during the country’s civil war. The seeds have since been regrown and were redeposited at the Norwegian vault in 2017.
In 2017, melting permafrost caused by unusually warm temperatures seeped into the seed vault, but fortunately, water didn’t flood into the vault itself. In light of this – the Vault’s own vulnerabilities to climate change – the Norwegian government last year announced its plans to spend 100 million Norwegian crowns ($13 million) to upgrade the seed vault including the “construction of a new, concrete-built access tunnel, as well as a service building to house emergency power and refrigerating units and other electrical equipment that emits heat through the tunnel”.
Rosa Medea is Life & Soul Magazine’s Chief. She writes about sustainable lifestyle and green living for publications, and offers content services to planet-friendly businesses. Find out more at Rosamedea.com