If you haven’t heard of the Svalbard archipelago, a small island group halfway between Norway and the North Pole, you’re in good company – aside from the tiny civilian population of Longyearbyen who call Svalbard home, few know of this remote part of the world. Unassuming as the region might be, however, Svalbard is in fact the unlikely home of a facility which some quite rightly believe to be amongst the most important structures ever built by man.
Tucked away on a still and silent Norwegian mountain on the frozen island of Spitsbergen, just 1,300km from the North Pole, is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault – a ‘doomsday’ vault of sorts, that has been entrusted by the world to safeguard the essential crop seeds, such as beans, rice, wheat, and corn, upon which human civilisation has been built.
The spectacular sight of the illuminated entrance to the Svalbard seed vault, which juts out of the mountain snow – a striking brutalist monument that looks not a little unlike the entrance to a Bond villain’s hideaway – is a fittingly impressive gateway into what could be deemed the ultimate guarantor of mankind’s future.
Tunnelling 393 feet into the very foundations of the mountain, 130m above sea level, and located in an area renowned for its lack of tectonic activity, this underground facility has been constructed to protect the seed samples of 5,403 at-risk plant species from every conceivable threat – seeds that have been deposited at the site by nations from every corner of the globe.
Barring a direct nuclear strike, the safety and security of Svalbard seed bank is absolute. The intense cold of the region and surrounding permafrost means that it is easier to safely maintain the −18°C temperature at which seed storage units are kept. If the site’s refrigeration units were to fail, it would take at least several weeks before the facility’s temperature rose to the surrounding sandstone bedrock’s temperature of −3°C. Additionally, as the vault is situated 130m above sea level, it is safe from rising waters, even in the catastrophic event of the ice caps melting, and its notoriously robust security guards and systems mean that it entirely inaccessible to those with ill-intent.
In the event of an existential disaster, be it nuclear war or a cataclysmic natural disaster, the unit holds just over 880,837 seed samples safely frozen away, to be reclaimed by the depositor nation should the need ever arise. Until September 2015, seeds had only gone into the vault for storage, never out. However, the International Center of Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), asked to withdraw seeds that had previously been deposited into the vault to replace plant material that was stored in their genebank near the war-ravaged city of Aleppo in Syria.
Barring a handful of nations, including India, Japan, and China, every nation in the world has deposited seeds at the facility. Do date, 71 institutes have deposited seeds into Svalbard for safekeeping, although seeds deposited in the facility originate from virtually every country in the world. Let’s hope that no further events of the magnitude of the Syria crisis takes place anytime soon, or we could see the world making more early withdrawals.