Weird Wednesdays: The vault that will save the world

Svalbard Global Seed Vault is one of the view things standing between a future for our world and the apocalypse. (Courtesy/Croptrust)

Picture a little island halfway between Northern Norway and the North Pole. It’s icy, sleety, locked in a constant permafrost and inhospitable to most forms of life, with the exceptions of polar bears, Santa Claus and perhaps a Viking or two. You couldn’t grow a plant there if you tried.

Despite this, nestled between snowdrifts and jutting out of a frozen hillside like the world’s biggest flash drive lies the entrance to a dormant cradle of plant life-- one that could, if the apocalypse arises, be the saving grace of humanity.

The Svalbard Seed Vault is the largest repository and collection of plants seeds in the world, hosting nearly 900,000 seed samples from over 200 different countries (This is hardly its full capacity, by the way-- it has space for 4.5 million samples, which is about 2.5 billion seeds in total). Each sample, containing 500 seeds from one variety, is sealed in a triple-layered aluminum pack and meticulously labeled and stored within the vault.

The idea for Svalbard was conceived by environmentalist and activist Cary Fowler, who worked with the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, the Norwegian government and other gene and crop trust organizations to build the vault, which was completed in 2008.

Why in Norway, you may ask? Well, Norway is cold, and cold preserves. The seeds are kept at a frigid -18 ͒F, which prevents them from accidentally sprouting. As well, the temperature is a safeguard against bacteria or mold activity. If the vault’s temperature systems fail, then the icy northern environment acts as a secondary refrigerator.

It’s critical that the seeds stay preserved. The Svalbard Vault acts as a backup to backup all backups-- so to speak. Farming communities around the world rely on crops specific to the region-- if this crop is wiped out due to either natural disaster (such as a wildfire, drought or a flood) or man made catastrophe (think war, nuclear fallout or even bioterrorism) then it can spell doom for the people who rely on those food sources.

In larger countries such as the United States, often only a few varieties of crop are used for production (Corn, for example, makes up 95% of US grain production and is nearly entirely limited to 12 species). This means a single disease can wipe out a species in one fell swoop.

This is where Svalbard comes in. Like a safe deposit box in a bank, countries with a certified genebank can submit seed samples for storage, and take them out later when the need arises. While many countries have seed banks of their own within their borders, if those banks are destroyed, then the survivors of whatever disaster that has befallen the country will starve without anything to plant and grow.

While this situation brings apocalyptic scenarios such as a dinosaur-age asteroid hitting the Earth or a zombie uprising, even events that are relatively small on a global scale may necessitate a withdrawal from the seed bank. In 2015, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) in Aleppo sent several backup samples of its dry-area crops to Svalbard, as its scientists fled the war-torn country of Syria. Later on they began withdrawing some of the samples for Svalbard in order to replenish their supply and add to additional samples in other seed vaults outside Syria.

These dry crop seeds are critical not just to Syria, but to the rest of the world. As climate change continues to increase in intensity many regions experience less rainfall, meaning that the crops we may rely on in the future may be those very seeds evacuated from Syria-- and sent to the safe, ice-locked vault of Svalbard.

The vault is free for any government or gene bank to store seeds in, so long as they meet the deposit guidelines. Svalbard’s operation is funded by the Norwegian government, the Global Crop Diversity Trust, various world governments and The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

You, as well, can donate to the vault on the Crop Trust web site. Who knows? You might just help preserve the seeds that will save the world.  


Marlese Lessing is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marlese.lessing@uconn.edu. She tweets @marlese_lessing.