The Arctic Doomsday Vault

February 19th, 2016
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, also known as the Doomsday Vault, is located in the Arctic Archipelago between mainland Norway and the North Pole. Hidden 500 feet inside a mountain in a remote island location, the Doomsday Vault is designed to function as a seed bank in the case of climate change, nuclear war, or widespread natural disaster. Generally kept secret, the vault has been in the news lately after the first withdrawal was made due to the Syrian civil war.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is located in the northernmost place in the world that still has scheduled flights. Operated by The Crop Trust, this facility has been in operation since early 2008. Millions of seeds are preserved in the vault, which houses more than 860,000 crop varieties from across the world. The Svalbard Vault is the centre of an entire global system of seek banks, all of which are designed to serve as essential food security measures in the case of unthinkable environmental collapse. In an amazing act of global cooperation, seeds continue to arrive from across the world, including the insulated state of North Korea.

The Arctic Vault is permanently buried in permafrost, meaning it could stay frozen for at least 200 years even if the facility lost power. The vault itself is climate controlled and closely regulated, with seed samples sent to Svalbard in large boxes and scanned with X-rays to make sure they contain nothing but seeds. While the Norwegian government are responsible for the upkeep of the structure, financial support has been made available from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other important donors.

According to Ross Andersen at The Atlantic, the global seed bank system is designed to "collect and store hundreds of thousands of seed varieties, encompassing nearly every plant ever cultivated by humans, going back to the dawn of agriculture." The facility has been designed for the future and can store more than three times its current capacity at 4.5 million seeds, giving it the ability to conserve all important grains and most major food crops for hundreds or even thousands of years.

While doomsday is not here just yet, the first ever withdrawal from the Svalbard Global Seed Vault was made in September 2015 due to the ongoing conflict in Syria. The war in Syria caused another seed bank, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), to move its headquarters from Aleppo to Beirut, with ICARDA requesting 116,000 samples from the Svalbard Vault to restore its damaged collection.

According to Cory Fowler, the founder of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, “The fact that this shipment is coming up right now in some ways points to the utility and value of the seed vault... One would not expect a seed bank, even in Syria, to be a target, but unfortunately there is a recent precedent: Seed banks in Iraq and Afghanistan were destroyed or severely damaged over the course of the wars there.” While facilities such as the Arctic Vault mostly go unnoticed, they continue to secure the very seeds of human survival.

Image source: Dalshe /