It seems inevitable that at some point the world as we know it will end. Considering the world events going on right now, some might even argue that it has already begun. In many cases there doesn’t seem to really be a plan when it comes to apocalyptic events that may mostly wipe us out. It just seems to be too much in the range of science fiction, and many governments are woefully unprepared for such an eventuality. Yet in the northern country of Norway, out buried away far from all of out drama, is a top secret, off limits facility that seeks to keep us alive in the event that things truly go south.
Buried deep within the bowels of a remote, ice-laden sandstone mountain on the frozen, sparsely inhabited Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, opened in 2008, is about as remote as it gets. The entrance is a rectangular wedge of concrete that stands out amongst the endless white of the surrounding landscape, looking somewhat alien and inscrutable, like the ruin of some lost civilization, and at night it lights up with an illuminated artwork called “Perpetual repercussions,” by artist Dyveke Sanne, which marks the location of the vault from a distance like a beautiful beacon. The front door is a vast, steel door, and beyond this formidable entrance is a manmade tunnel that leads through blast proof doors of steel-reinforced concrete right into the heart of the mountain, continuing past state-of-the-art security systems for 120 meters (390 ft) to arrive at what is hoped will be the savior of the human race if the world ever ends.
Here, deep within this frozen vault far from civilization and stored within sealed three-ply foil packages kept in special boxes completely free of moisture in temperatures of −18 °C (−0.4 °F) are millions of seeds from more than 930,000 varieties of agricultural food crops, including 200,000 varieties of rice alone, all representing 13,000 years of agricultural biodiversity. This facility acts sort of like a safe deposit box in a bank, only instead of money, they keep safe the agricultural biodiversity of Earth, locked away in a secure, remote location away from war and conflict and protected by rock and walls that could withstand a nuclear strike. The remote location makes in inaccessible, and the permafrost and altitude keep the facility cold and dry, to the point that even if the refrigeration units fail it is estimated it would take several weeks for the temperature to rise to −4 °C, and nearly a century to ever hit 0°C. In these conditions seeds can remain viable for hundreds and even thousands of years, and that’s the point. Add in the reinforced, blast-proof walls and door, and there seems to be no safer place to store these seeds.
The idea is that in the event of a worldwide catastrophe such as a meteor strike, massive war, or environmental change, these seeds can be used as final duplicate copies of seeds kept in a network of 1,750 seed gene banks worldwide should they be compromised or destroyed, making this sort of like insurance or a safety net, and the last hope for repopulating the scorched earth with these plants and trees if all else fails. This has earned the Svalbard Global Seed Vault the rather ominous nickname “The Doomsday Vault,” although it also serves the purpose of regularly restocking seeds that have been loss through smaller, more localized incidents, such as error or accidents, equipment failures, lack of resources, funding cuts, or natural disasters in other seed banks, which happens on a fairly regular basis. The seeds kept here are also seen as being essential for preserving the biodiversity of crops, which has dropped dramatically due to changing agricultural practices and makes these crops more susceptible to diseases or environmental conditions such as drought. Yet another advantage is that the genetic information held within some of the species here, many of which no longer even exist outside of the vault, could help with modifying crops to cope with changing environmental conditions or new pests or diseases in the future, all have which has given the seed vault its other, somewhat more hopeful nickname of the “Noah’s Ark of plant diversity.”
The vault has no full time on-site staff, and is owned by both the Government of Norway and an organization called the Crop Trust, while being managed by the Nordic Genetic Resource Center. All of the seeds within the mountain are deposited here by the various gene banks around the world, while these individual gene banks maintain ownership, therefore denying access to anyone else’s seeds, meaning that you just can’t waltz in and take what you need. Indeed, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault has some of the most strictly controlled access in the world.
So far, since its start of operations, although there have been many deposits made here, there has only ever been one withdrawal. This happened in 2015, after the civil war in Syria threatened the gene bank called the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), in Aleppo, Syria, which had an extremely important collection including the oldest varieties of wheat and barley in the world. The researchers were forced to flee the fighting and abandon the facility to move their operations to Morocco and Lebanon, after which they made the first ever withdrawal from the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. If it had not been for the vault, these seeds and the species they represent would have been lost forever.
It may be too soon to say that the world will end anytime soon. Perhaps we will get things under control and make things work, and the seed vault of Norway can remain a forgotten oddity out in the frozen wilds. Yet it is somewhat comforting to know that if we are wiped out by a nuclear war, global warming, or an alien invasion, this remote, little-known facility might be the key to bringing us back from the brink of extinction.