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The Noah’s Ark of plants

Posted on 13 November 2014.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault stores seed from the world’s food crops. A true "Doomsday seed vault" that protects seeds from extinction and so maintains biodiversity.

Located 1000 km from the North Pole, the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard is one of the most remote places in the world. It is an inhospitable piece of land, but one that is politically and geologically stable. On Spitsbergen Island near the small village of Longyearbyen (with a population of 2000), a secure vault has been built into the sides of a mountain. Well protected by rock, permafrost and reinforced concrete, a marvelous treasure is buried there – the world’s seeds.

A frozen garden of Eden whose mission is to "safeguard the genetic diversity of the world’s food crops for future generations”. Inaugurated in February 2008, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is funded by Norway (and several other nations), the Global Crop Diversity Trust and private organizations including the Rockefeller Foundation, the Syngenta Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The "bunker" emerges from a snowy mountain. It is accessed through a heavy security door surmounted by an illuminated work of art. A tunnel over one hundred meters long leads to three underground vaults, which can store up to 4.5 million seeds. The samples, collected from the four corners of the world from thousands of research institutes and national seed banks, are packed in hermetically sealed bags before being stored in black boxes on metal shelves and maintained at a temperature of minus 18°C. Should the equipment fail, the seeds would be maintained at between minus 4 and minus 5°C because of the permafrost in Svalbard.

If a major disaster - natural or otherwise – were to occur, governments and institutions would be able to recover the seeds they have deposited in the Svalbard vault.

Since its inception, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault has fascinated everyone. It was given the evocative nickname of the "Doomsday” seed vault; the ultimate biodiversity refuge in the event of a botanical cataclysm. If there were to be a major crisis (natural disaster, epidemic, nuclear war, etc.), governments and institutions could recover the seeds they have deposited in the Svalbard vault. At a time when human activity and climate change threatens biodiversity and the global population is increasing, the sole purpose of the vault is not only to preserve the diversity of plant varieties, but is also to rise to the challenge presented by food security in developing countries.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault now houses hundreds of thousands of different plant seeds (725,000 in 2013). A treasure - and one of humanity’s most precious assets.

Find out more:

- Official website
- Seeds of Time; a documentary by Sandy McLeod about the Svalbard Global Seed Vault with Cary Fowler, one of its protagonists