Arctic Svalbard Global Seed Vault

In 2008, the Norwegian government finished construction on an ingenious underground site in Svalbard that was designed to store, catalog, and protect millions of crop seeds.   Its isolated locale, climatic conditions, and geology have made this an ideal location for the project. The purpose of this storage site is to help insure the continuing diversity of agricultural plants in the face of natural disasters, war, mismanagement, or other catastrophes such as global warming. Our modern civilization depends extensively upon agriculture to sustain itself, and there is also a real danger of plant diseases disrupting the production of food crops. Today’s system of large-scaled monoculture farming can create situations conducive for overwhelming infections, such as the infamous Potato Famine in Europe in the mid-19th century. Many similar disasters have occurred down through the ages.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault (nicknamed the Doomsday Vault) is located just outside of Longyearbyen on Spitsbergen Island and is capable of safely storing millions of crop seeds for long periods of time. The facility is administered by the Global Crop Diversity Trust.  The vault was designed to resist both natural and human disasters, including global warming, floods, fires, and nuclear holocaust.

The Svalbard vault is part of a tunnel system excavated 120 m (about 400 ft) into the side of a sandstone mountain. It contains blast-proof doors and two airlocks that require top security clearance to enter. The vault is conveniently located deep in the permafrost, which helps to maintain the necessary low temperature for safe long-term storage. The natural temperature within the ground here is -6ºC (18ºF), and the temperature within the vault is maintained even lower at -18ºC (-6ºF). The vault entrance is located 130 metres (430 ft) above sea level, which ensures that the site will remain dry even if the icecaps melt. 

It is managed jointly by the Norwegian government, the Global Crop Diversity Trust (GCDT), and the Nordic Genetic Resource Center (NordGen). Construction of the Svalbard seed vault was funded entirely by the Norwegian government of Norway and cost approximately 45 million Norwegian Kroner (9 million USD). Operating costs are funded by both Norway and the Global Crop Diversity Trust. The Government of Norway owns the vault, but the various participating genebanks retain ownership of the seeds they deposit at the facility.

The seeds have been gathered through the efforts 1,400 crop repositories that are maintained by numerous countries around the world. The seeds stored here are duplicate samples of seeds that are being held in other genebanks located worldwide. The Svalbard project actually began in 1984, when the Nordic Gene Bank (NGB) began storing frozen seeds of Nordic plants in an abandoned coal mine.  The NGB banked more than 10,000 seed samples from more than 2,000 cultivars of 300 different plant species at this site over the years. This also included samples from South African seed plants. The entire collection has now been shifted to the modern Svalbard Global Seed Vault and NGB has become integrated into NordGen. Seeds are packaged in special four-ply packets and heat sealed to exclude moisture. It is believed the vault will be able to preserve most major food crop seeds for centuries, and some seeds, especially those of important grains, may remain viable for millennia.  

The vault now contains samples from approximately one-third of the world's most important food crop varieties. As of Spring of 2010, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault has more than half a million seed samples in storage, and each sample can contain up to 500 seeds. So, the facility now stores nearly 250 million individual seeds! Take an Arctic tour or just travel to the Arctic to check it out.

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