Svalbard seed vault exterior

A Refrigerator in the Arctic

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault

 Svalbard Global Seed Vault

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is a secure seed bank on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen near Longyearbyen in the remote Arctic Svalbard archipelago, about  810 miles from the North Pole.  The seed vault is an attempt to insure against the loss of seeds in other genebanks during large-scale regional or global crises.

 Remote Location

The seed bank is 390 ft inside a sandstone mountain on Spitsbergen Island.  Seeds are packaged in special three-ply foil packets and heat sealed to exclude moisture.The facility is managed by the Nordic Genetic Resource Center, though there are no permanent staff on-site. It does enjoy state of the art security, though it is unlikely to be robbed or vandalized, due to its remote location and danger of Polar Bears.
Warning. Polar Bears!
Spitsbergen location

Yes, it is refrigerated!

Spitsbergen was considered ideal because it was absent of earthquake activity and had permafrost, which aids preservation. It is 430 ft above sea level will keep the site dry even if the ice caps melt. Locally mined coal provides power for refrigeration units that further cool the seeds to the internationally recommended standard of −0.4 °F (−18 °C). If the equipment fails, at least several weeks will elapse before the facility rises to the surrounding earth’s temperature of 27 °F (−3 °C)

Built to Last

It is thought that the vault could, for hundreds of years, and preserve most major food crops’ seeds. Some, including those of important grains, could possibly survive thousands of years.
The Seed Vault officially opened on 26 February 2008. Approximately 1.5 million distinct seed samples of agricultural crops are thought to exist. The facility has a capacity to conserve 4.5 million.  By 2013, approximately one-third of the general diversity stored in gene banks globally was represented at the Seed Vault. Even boxes of seeds from North Korea sit inside the vault!
Seeds from North Korea and Taiwan inside the main vault of Svalbard Global Seed Vault, Svalbard, Norway, July 2012

The Vault is the backup to seed banks around the world

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault’s mission is to provide a safety net against accidental loss of diversity in traditional genebanks. While the popular press has emphasized its possible utility in the event of a  global catastrophe, it will be more frequently accessed when samples are lost due to mismanagement, accident, equipment failures, funding cuts, and natural disasters. These events occur with some regularity. War and civil strife have a history of destroying some seed storage facilities. The national seed bank of the Philippines was damaged by flooding and later destroyed by a fire; the seed banks of Afghanistan and Iraq have been lost completely. According to The Economist newspaper, “the Svalbard vault is a backup for the world’s 1,750 seed banks, storehouses of agricultural biodiversity.”
By the request of the Norwegian government, no genetically modified seeds are stored in the vault.
Cover image by Bjoertvedt