November 13, 2023 | Mathew Burke

The Global Seed Vault


The Doomsday Vault

Outdoor of Seed VaultSubiet, Wikimedia Commons

Nestled deep within the Arctic Circle on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen in the remote Svalbard archipelago, the Global Seed Vault stands as one of humanity’s most critical and ambitious conservation projects. 

Often dubbed the “Doomsday Vault,” it serves as a global backup facility to safeguard the genetic diversity of the world’s food crops, a vital resource for future generations.

Location and Geographic Significance

Snowy Global Seed Vault EntranceDag Endresen, Wikimedia Commons

The Global Seed Vault is strategically located in Svalbard, Norway, chosen for both its remote location and permafrost conditions.

Situated roughly 1,300 kilometers from the North Pole, the Vault is far from major population centers, minimizing the risk of human-made and natural disasters.

Its unique geographical position also ensures a naturally cold environment, crucial for long-term seed preservation.

Norway offers a quiet and secure environment, situated in a remote part of the globe, far from the primary seed banks predominantly located in the Southern regions.

Despite the impacts of global warming, Svalbard is anticipated to retain its status as one of the coldest places on Earth, making it a strategically sound location for long-term seed preservation and ensuring diversity for future generations.

The Vault's Purpose

Seed vault seeds storageDag Endresen, Wikimedia Commons

The primary purpose of the Global Seed Vault is to act as a backup storage facility for the world's crop diversity. It is a joint effort to ensure the world’s future food supply.

In the event of a regional or global crisis, these seeds could be used to regenerate crops and restore agricultural ecosystems.

Types of Seeds

Global Seed Vault seedsSvalbard Global Seed Vault

It’s currently housing 642 million seeds, with a capacity to store up to 2.5 billion.

Emphasizing the preservation of food crops, about 69% of its collection comprises grains, with rice being the predominant species at 85 million seeds. Legumes constitute another 9% of the collection.

The remaining seeds, spanning approximately 6,000 different species, encompass a diverse range of fruits, vegetables, herbs, and other plants, including naturally occurring hallucinogenic varieties like cannabis and opium.

However, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are not included.

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Global Contributions

People pushing bins of seeds Svalbard Global Seed Vault

Contributions to the vault have come from 76 institutions across 223 countries and territories, showcasing its truly global nature.

India leads in the number of contributions, having deposited 95 million seeds, reflecting the country's rich agricultural diversity and commitment to preserving it.

The Vault's extensive collection includes a wide array of seeds from different climates and geographical regions, ensuring a comprehensive backup of the world’s agricultural biodiversity.

The number of participating countries continues to grow as more nations recognize the importance of this global resource in the face of changing climates and potential ecological challenges.

Construction

Construction of seed vaultBair175, Wikimedia Commons

Constructed in 2008, the Vault is an engineering marvel designed to last.

It is built into the side of a sandstone mountain, which ensures a constant low temperature and low humidity environment – ideal conditions for seed preservation.

To optimize seed preservation, the facility includes an advanced cooling system that further lowers the temperature within the seed storage area to -18°C, ensuring a consistent environment crucial for long-term storage.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is built 130 meters above sea level to ensure its safety and longevity, particularly in the face of potential climate change impacts.

The Vault's electricity is sourced from Longyearbyen’s public power plant, complemented by on-site generators that kick in during power outages, guaranteeing uninterrupted preservation conditions.

Design

Inside seed vaultSvalbard Global Seed Vault

The facility is designed to withstand natural and man-made disasters, including earthquakes and nuclear detonations, ensuring the seeds' safety for centuries.

The seed storage facility within the Vault comprises three sizable halls, each measuring approximately 9.5 x 27 meters. With each hall designed to hold around 1.5 million seed samples.

Currently, only one of the three halls actively used for storage. This hall is meticulously maintained and outfitted with shelving units for the orderly placement of seed boxes.

Longevity and Durability

Outside the Global Seed VaultBanja&FransMulder, Wikimedia Commons

The Vault's design and location contribute to its estimated longevity. It is expected to preserve seeds for hundreds, even thousands of years, with minimal maintenance.

The permafrost conditions provide a natural refrigeration system, while the structure's robust design shields its precious contents from potential environmental hazards.

Funding and Management

People at the seed vaultMinistry of Science & Technology (GODL-India), Wikimedia Commons

The Global Seed Vault is a collaborative project, funded by various governments and organizations. The Norwegian government primarily financed its construction, while ongoing operational costs are shared among various partners, including the Crop Trust and the Nordic Genetic Resource Center.

This collaborative funding approach underscores the shared global responsibility for agricultural biodiversity.

Comparison with Other Seed Vaults

Exterior entrance Global Seed Vault Cierra Martin for Crop Trust, Wikimedia Commons

While there are thousands of seed banks worldwide, the Global Seed Vault is unique in its scale and purpose.

It functions as a master backup to these banks, ensuring the safety of a duplicate collection of seeds. Its global scope and capacity to store up to 4.5 million seed samples make it unparalleled in the world.

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Seed Withdrawal Protocol

Black and white Global Seed Vault 黃逸樂(世界首窮), Wikimedia Commons

Seeds can be withdrawn from the Vault in cases where the original collections are lost or destroyed. This process was first undertaken in 2015, when seeds were withdrawn to replace those lost in a gene bank in Aleppo, Syria, due to the civil war.

The seeds were later successfully regrown and redeposited in the Vault.

Access and Security

Outside the Global Seed Vault Dag Terje Filip Endresen, Wikimedia Commons

Access to the inside of the Vault is highly restricted, limited to a few authorized personnel. The stringent security measures ensure the safety and integrity of the seed samples.

Scientists and researchers do not typically work inside the Vault; rather, it serves purely as a secure storage facility.

Staffing and Operations

Inside the Global Seed VaultDag Endresen, Wikimedia Commons

The Vault operates with minimal staffing, primarily for security and maintenance purposes.

A small team oversees the facility, ensuring that the temperature and humidity levels remain consistent and that the seeds are properly catalogued and stored.

Final Thoughts

People standing in front of the global seed vaultSvalbard Global Seed Vault

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault stands as a testament to global cooperation and foresight, a crucial insurance policy against future crises that could threaten global food security.

Its existence not only safeguards biodiversity but also serves as a powerful symbol of our collective responsibility to protect and preserve the natural resources that sustain life on our planet.