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Photo: Erik Abel
Photo: Erik Abel

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Keeping Doomsday at bay

There are seed banks all over the planet. But the safest one is probably at the top of the world, carved into a mountain in the remote Arctic Svalbard archipelago.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault was established in 2008 to preserve a wide variety of plant seeds that are duplicate samples, or spare copies, of seeds held in gene banks worldwide. The seeds deposited there have distinct genetic resources of importance to food security and sustainable agriculture. The facility is seen as a backup in case seeds are lost in other gene banks during large-scale regional or global crises.

But biologist and agronomist Åsmund Asdal, who joined the Svalbard Global Seed Vault as Vault Coordinator in 2015, is keen to downplay the facility’s association with end-of-the world scenarios.The seed vault, located more than 100m inside the mountain, can store 4.5 million seeds. Photo: Mattias Heyde

“The picture of the vault as a facility constructed for future global disasters is more or less constructed by the media,” Asdal says. “For us, the vault is part of a global system for conserving genetic diversity of crop plants, primarily for the small disasters that happen to banks all over the world due to natural disasters, civil strikes, crime and plundering, or simply lack of resources to maintain the collections.”

The International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) gene bank in Aleppo, Syria, for example, duplicated their seed collection at -Svalbard, to avoid destruction in the country’s civil war.

Today, some 1,750 gene banks in more than 100 countries house collections that contain more than 7.4 million seed samples.

Photo: Riccardo GangaleThe Svalbard Global Seed Vault was established by the Norwegian government who have overall responsibility for it.

The vault is carved into a hillside of virgin solid rock, 130 meters above sea level, near the airport at Longyearbyen. The seed storage area itself is located more than 100m inside the mountain, under layers of rock between 40 and 60m thick.

The mountain mass has permafrost, with a stable temperature of between minus 3 and 4°C. Electricity is provided by the public power plant in Longyearbyen. In addition, the Seed Vault is equipped with generators that provide electricity in the case of a power outage.

“The vault is constructed to withstand heavy incidents including earthquakes, sea level rise and bombings,” Asdal says.

The vault’s entrance portal has become a Svalbard tourist attraction. It is a simple concrete construction that has gained status as a global icon, in part due to “Perpetual Repercussion,” an illuminated fiber-optic art installation created by the Norwegian artist Dyveke Sanne, that decorates the entrance.

The seed store facility consists of three halls, each with a base measuring about 9.5 x 27m. Each hall can accommodate about 1.5 million seed samples, thus -giving the vault a total capacity to store 4.5 million seed accessions.

 

To date, the holdings in the seed vault are close to 900,000 seed samples from 5,000 plant samples. The

seeds include crop varieties, farmers’ land races, breeding material and wild plants that are related to and could be gene donors to new varieties of crops.

“The site was chosen because of the permafrost, proximity to an airport, good communications and a functional local management that can look after it. Norway also has the resources to build a vault like this and to provide the space for seeds from all countries free of charge,” Asdal says.

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Last edited: May 30, 2018

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