Sometimes called the "doomsday vault," the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is seen as humanity's last hope against extinction after a world crisis. Though its mission is to keep the world's seeds safe, its creation wasn't meant as a way to reseed the world after a world-scale catastrophe.
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault was the brainchild of Cary Fowler, a scientist, conservationist and biodiversity advocate. Though there are more than 1,700 genebanks around the world that keep collections of seeds, they are all vulnerable to war, natural disasters, equipment malfunctions and other problems. In 2003, Fowler started to envision a backup storage facility where all of the world's seeds could be stored as safely as possible.
In 2008, Fowler's idea was realized and the Global Seed Vault was built, carved nearly 500 feet (152 meters) into the side of a mountain. In 2015, the Syrian war brought the first withdrawal from the seed vault. The seeds replaced those damaged in a gene bank (a facility that stores genetic material) near the war-torn Syrian city of Aleppo. In 2016, Fowler released a book on the vault called "Seeds on Ice: Svalbard and the Global Seed Vault."
The Svalbard Global Seed Bank is located in Svalbard in a Norwegian archipelago (an area of ocean containing many islands) in the Arctic Ocean. Svalbard is found north of mainland Europe, halfway between continental Norway and the North Pole, according to the Norwegian Ministry of Agriculture and Food.
Why was Norway chosen as the vault's home? "We absolutely had to situate the vault in a country that was respected and trusted globally, particularly in relation to the issue of biodiversity, which can have politically contentious aspects," said Fowler told Live Science. "Norway fits the bill in this regard rather better than any other; it is admired and trusted. Norway was also willing to provide 100 percent of the funding to construct the Seed Vault. It wasn't terribly expensive in the scheme of things — about $9 million — but funding was necessary.
"None of these reasons for locating the facility in Norway would have sufficed had it not been for the fact that Svalbard offers almost perfect conditions: it is remote and thus safer than other possible locations and it is naturally cold. We wanted to have a facility that would stay naturally frozen without the aid of mechanical freezing equipment. Inside the mountain in the permafrost, we get steady below-freezing temperatures. We mechanically lower the temperature further to about minus 18 C [0 F], but this is much easier to accomplish when you start at -5 C [23 F] rather than above freezing."
The site is also located in an area that is high up to prevent flooding; it is geologically stable and the area has low humidity. It is also the farthest north that scheduled airline flights go, making it very remote. If the electricity goes out or the refrigeration fails, the seeds will also still stay cold due to their location.
In addition to keeping the seeds at 0 F, the seeds are sealed in three-ply foil packages and then sealed inside boxes. These boxes are placed on shelves inside the vault where temperature and moisture levels are closely monitored. This process helps keep the metabolic activity in the seeds low, keeping them viable for long periods of time.
The vault's purpose
Though the vault is thought of as a "doomsday vault" that will be the source of seeds for the world after a worldwide disaster, that isn't really true.
"The seeds are not meant for distribution to farmers or gardeners," said Fowler. "Their value and utility lies in their being a genetic resource in plant breeding. So they are ultimately intended to serve plant breeders and other scientists who are involved in developing new crop varieties for farmers. Think of the seeds as a collection of traits, or even more broadly as a collection of options our crops will have in the future, options such as disease and pest resistance, drought and heat tolerance, better nutrition, etc."
The vault, and other vaults around the world, can be a way of preserving historical species of plants, as well. According to National Geographic, an estimated 90 percent of historic fruit and vegetable varieties in the United States have disappeared. The seed vault can protect these seeds for future generations.
The Global Seed Vault is specifically meant, though, to be an aid to other banks.
"The seeds in the Seed Vault are duplicate copies of collections held in national and other seedbanks around the world," said Fowler. "If something happens to one of those facilities and if their seed samples are destroyed, then there is a backup copy in the Seed Vault. In the past the loss of a variety meant extinction for that variety and any unique trait it might have contained. Today, fires, floods, natural disaster, war, human error, accidents, funding cuts — none of these need cause the extinction of a crop variety. If that variety is in the Seed Vault, it's as safe as it can be."
The Global Seed Vault can hold massive amounts of seeds. It is built to store a whopping 4.5 million varieties of crops, with each variety containing around 500 seeds. That equals a maximum of 2.5 billion seeds that can be stored in the Vault, according to Global Crop Diversity Trust, an international group that works in conjunction with the Norway government to manage the seeds in the vault. The vault currently holds more than 860,000 seed samples as of this writing. These seeds were donated by almost every country in the world, so there is a massive variety of seeds represented in the Global Seed Vault.
"Even though I have worked in this field for almost 40 years, I guess the biggest surprise was the breadth of diversity that came in from seedbanks around the world," said Fowler. "I expected a lot of rice and wheat (we have more than 150,000 distinct varieties of each). What I didn't expect to see were seeds of so many crops totally unfamiliar to me. When I print out a list of the crops represented in the Vault, it runs about 55 pages, single-spaced. Rice and wheat occupy two lines. I confess that I didn't know anything about 'cheesytoes,' or 'Asian pigeonwings' or 'zombie pea,' but we have all of these and much more."
Donations and seed retrieval
The Global Seed Vault has a few rules about donations and seed retrieval. First, they only take donations that are part of the Multilateral System, which is part of an international treaty on food resources, or seeds that have originated in the country of the depositor.
The Multilateral System is a provision of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, which governs how plant genetics are shared. The treaty ensures that countries can freely share the genetic information of 64 crops that account for 80 percent of all human consumption through seed banks, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Those who use the information and find new information must agree to share the information or pay a percentage of money they receive because of their research into a common fund.
The Global Seed Vault doesn't own or govern the seeds within it. Any seeds donated are still owned by those that donated. This means that only the people who donated can have access to those seeds or allow others to borrow them.