The frozen Norwegian island of Spitzbergen, which lies within the Arctic circle, is a brutal place. With temperatures regularly dropping to a bone-chilling -20c (-4F) during winter and only climbing as high as 7c (44.6F) in the summer months, it’s far from being a hospitable place. The island also boasts the unique accolade of being the furthest north that any commercial passenger plane lands.
And yet, this icy, windswept location is home to one of the most extraordinary human endeavours. A project vast in scale that just might ensure the survival of countless plant species should the unthinkable ever occur. Its name is the Svalbard Seed Vault.
The importance of this megaproject lies not in size, speed or glamour. It doesn’t receive millions of visitors like some of the other, more visually impressive megaprojects that we have covered. But if, or when, our planet experiences a truly cataclysmic event, the vault on Svalbard may turn out to be the most vital project that we have ever undertaken. Quite simply, this vault which now contains close to a million different varieties of seeds may facilitate the survival of our species and the plant life that sustains us.
There are an estimated 1,750 seed banks around the world. Primarily they focus on maintaining the biodiversity that we have now. They are backups for what is readily available, but also the vaults for what is endangered, or what may have already disappeared from wider circulation. The idea is that entire crops or species could be reintroduced to a region just from the seeds that are kept in these seed banks.
But like any tech wizz will tell you, always back up at least twice. As I will get to later in the video, there have been instances where seed banks around the world have been destroyed by war or natural causes. When a seed bank is destroyed it may take thousands of years worth of biodiversity with it. For this reason, countries all over the planet send their seeds to the harsh environment of Spitzbergen where they are stored in the Svalbard Seed Vault. It’s therefore unsurprising that this has come to be known as the doomsday vault.
The End is Nigh
Now, it may sound like a depressing place to be starting from, but let’s begin with the apocalypse. While we like to think that we, as a human race, are going to live forever, the truth is far less certain. Whether it be an asteroid strike, a supervolcano eruption or some other event that we haven’t even envisioned yet, our time on Earth is far from infinite.
The idea of the apocalypse has fascinated us since we began the long road to self-awareness. It is a concept spanning religions, ancient text and contemporary culture – from the Four Horseman to Mad Max. Yet while in the past, we may have accepted our fate as an act of God, now we imagine what might happen next. If the human race wasn’t completely wiped out, how would we recover?
What is being slowly put together on Svalbard isn’t merely focused on the apocalypse – but make no mistake about it, should it happen, this is exactly where we will need to go. But let’s not get bogged down at the end of the world so early in the video.
How and what we eat has changed dramatically over the last century. We have developed technology that allows large-scale crop production on an unprecedented scale. But it’s not all good news. While crops yields have surged to unimaginable levels, biodiversity has plummeted. Today, only around 30 crops provide 95% of our food energy needs. If we look at the two most powerful countries today, the U.S and China, both have experienced enormous drops in food variety. Just 10% of rice varieties found in China in the1950s are still found today, while an estimated 90% of U.S fruit and vegetable varieties have disappeared since the 1900s.
While you may be thinking, what’s the big deal, we have enough to eat don’t we, yes, you’re technically right, but putting all of your eggs in one basket can lead to disastrous circumstances. Should we experience severe disease or drought, our monoculture of food production could very well prove to be calamitous.
I know this might all sound a little far fetched, but let’s be honest did anybody really think that 2020 would work out the way it has!
As I mentioned earlier, this is not the only seed vault in the world, but the Svalbard Seed Vault is the safety net, of the safety nets. No other seed bank provides the same kind of security.
As early as 1984 the Nordic Seed Bank began placing plant germplasm, the genetic material of germ cells, in an abandoned coal mine on Svalbard, outside the small town of Longyearbyen. In 2001, the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA) – quite a mouthful that one – was finally signed and began to receive its first signatories from governments around the world. The treaty aimed to establish a multilateral system for plant genetic resources, along with specific rules about use and withdrawals. As of 2020, 147 countries have signed up to the treaty, many of which now keep their replica seeds at Svalbard.
Shortly after the treaty was signed, Bioversity International, a global research and development organization focused on agricultural biodiversity, approached the Norwegian government about the possibility of building a seed vault on Svalbard. The island was seen as one of the best possible locations because of its remoteness, constant permafrost and absence of tectonic activity. However, a feasibility study carried out in 2004 revealed that keeping such precious treasure in an old coal mine was far from optimal because of the high levels of hydrocarbon gases. If Svalbard was going to host the seed vault, it would need an entirely new location.
Svalbard Seed Vault
The site chosen for the Svalbard Seed Vault was the side of a sandstone mountain on the island of Spitzbergen and work began on 19th June 2006. Rather than go down, the vault barrels 120 metres (390ft) directly into the mountain before forking into a T at the bottom.
If you were walking through the snowy tundra on Spitzbergen and came to the entrance of the Seed Vault, you’d be forgiven in thinking that it might be the lair of James Bond villain – albeit one with a love of art. Its rectangular shape has two plain grey metal doors at the bottom, a large air vent above it, and a piece of art called Perpetual Repercussion by Norwegian artist Dyveke Sanne above the vent. It is both drab and very beautiful.
Passing through the entrance, a long, wide concrete tunnel appears, which looks every inch the setting of a post-apocalyptic world. At the end of the tunnel, lies the main chamber and coming off from it are three large vaults, only the middle of which is currently in use. It is within this middle vault that over a third of the world’s most important food crop seedlings are kept in icy conditions. In total, the vault covers roughly 1,000 sq metres (11,000 sq ft) and sits 130 metres (426ft) above sea level, which in theory makes it relatively safe from rising water levels.
The result of all of this is about as secure as you’re going to get for seed storage. The area is kept at a constant -18c (-0.4F) with the help of refrigeration units. Should there be a power outage, it’s estimated it would take several weeks until the vaults warmed to the same temperature as the surrounding sandstone bedrock at −3 °C (27 °F), while it would take at least two centuries to warm to 0 °C (32 °F).
So to put it simply, these seeds are very well protected. So much so that it is believed that most seeds could survive here for several hundred years, while some important grains could survive for thousands of years. As if the vault itself was not secure enough, the seeds are afforded the utmost care. They are placed in sealed three-ply foil packages before being heat sealed. They are then stored in plastic tote containers, each carefully marked with its country of origin and details of what’s inside. Each seed sample typically comes with 500 individual seeds and the vault can hold 4.5 million samples – or 2.25 billion seeds. The vault aims to hold replicas of every sample held in seed banks around the world. But with less than a quarter of capacity taken up, there’s plenty still to do.
The Svalbard Seed Vault was officially opened on 26th February 2008, though the first seeds, totalling 18,000 samples, had arrived one month earlier. By the vaults first anniversary, that number had reached 400,000, including 90,000 to commemorate its first birthday. This group included 32 varieties of potatoes from Ireland, 20,000 samples from the U.S. Agricultural Research Service, along with others from Canada, Switzerland, Colombia, Mexico and Syria. This brought the total number of individual seeds stored in the Vault to over 20 million.
In 2015 the Vault authorised its first withdrawal as the civil war in Syria neared the city of Aleppo, home to the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA). The centre was hastily moved to Beirut, but because of the difficulties with moving large amounts of samples, some copies held in Svalbard were sent instead. A second, more substantial withdrawal was made two years later. Since then, samples grown have been returned to Svalbard. These remain the only two occasions that seeds have departed the vault.
It would be a stretch to use the word lucky with the devastation that has fallen on Aleppo, but in an agricultural sense, many of the seeds at ICARDA have been saved. The same cannot be said for seed banks in Iraq and Afganistan. Both were destroyed without backups being kept to Svalbard, meaning potentially certain strains of plants or crops have been lost forever. A seed bank on the Philippines was also devastated, this time from flooding and then fires. As terrible as these examples are, they highlight the vital work being done at Svalbard.
In October 2016 higher than average temperatures caused large amounts of water to seep into the tunnel. While the water only reached 15 metres down the corridor before freezing, it was enough to sound the alarm, and some upgrades were made to the vault, including exterior drainage dutches, waterproofing of the tunnel walls and the removal of heat sources inside the tunnel.
On 26th February 2018, the vault celebrated its 10th anniversary with 70,000 samples added, bring the total number of samples to just over 1 million (500 million individual seeds). The vault cost $8.8 million ($10.5 million today) to construct and on average it cost $310,000 to maintain each year. The seed vault is managed under a tripartite agreement formed by the Norwegian government, the Crop Trust, and the Nordic Genetic Resource Center (NordGen). It is primarily paid for by donors, with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundations one of its primary supporters.
An Uncertain Future
It’s probably fair to say that the world has a lot on its plate right now, but food production is going to be yet another enormous hurdle that we will need to navigate in the future. As our climate changes, droughts, forest fires and storms appear to be on the rise and who knows what kind of impact this will have in the future.
The Svalbard Seed Vault, and indeed seed vaults around the world, continue to quietly maintain the knowledge and crops that we have and those that are quickly disappearing. Right now, the biggest threat to global seed banks is not from war, or natural disasters, but from our own apathy. These banks are woefully underfunded, with Svalbard, fortunately, being one of the lucky ones.
Humans have taken food production for granted – in the first world at least – for a long time. What the Svalbard Seed Vault and its many partners are doing is trying to preserve not only our crops but indeed our way of life. We love to fantasise about the end of the world and yet blindly turn away from the genuine possibility that one day something as simple as corn or maise could easily be devastated by an unknown disease. If this were to happen, reserves would begin to run out in a matter of months, and the effects on the food industry would be disastrous.
But seed banks are not merely for doomsday scenarios. They also focus on education and cooperation with countries around the world. Nations can apply to use seeds from any bank and in our fractured world, this network of seed banks remains a glimmer of hope that we can work together. The DNA found within plants no longer in use today may well hold the secrets to food production in the future. Perhaps we will need a corn variety that can grow at a higher temperature or certain wheat that is immune to a specific disease.
Of all of the subjects, we’ve done here on megaprojects, very few, if any, hold the same kind of global importance as the Svalbard Seed Vault. What is kept buried in a sandstone mountain vault on a desolate Norweigan island, represents our last stand. If everything else goes wrong, it is here that we will turn. Maybe we are not talking about the apocalypse, but as the world changes at ferocious speed around us, it’s foolish to believe that everything will remain the same. It is somewhat ironic that almost all of the seeds in the Svalbard Seed Vault would have next to no hope of ever-growing on Spitzbergen – the thick permafrost would prevent life from ever breaking through. But it is this very permafrost that protects our the most valuable assets. Forget oil, forget gold – if the seeds disappear, so do we.