Sustainable Solutions: The Svalbard Global Seed Vault

WRITTEN BY Ella Sloane

September 7, 2023

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Sustainable Solutions: The Svalbard Global Seed Vault

by | Sep 7, 2023 | Sustainability

Ella Sloane

7 Sep, 2023

Countries worldwide have been forced to contend with record-breaking weather conditions in the past few months alone; these concerning developments, coupled with the increasingly fraught nature of our geopolitical landscape, can often induce a sense of impending doom. It begs the question: what exactly happens in the event of a disaster of colossal proportions?

The health of the ecosystems on which we all depend are rapidly deteriorating — soil degradation, the extinction of plant and animal species, you name it — our careless overexploitation of natural resources has put humanity on track for an agricultural Armageddon…unless?

The development and continued expansion of so-called ‘doomsday vaults’ such as the Svalbard Global Seed Vault promises humanity a second chance of sorts, offering much-needed protection in the event of agricultural devastation. Located on the remote Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, halfway between mainland Norway and the Arctic, this secure vault provides a long-term storage solution, safeguarding duplicates of seeds conserved in genebanks globally.

So far, the vault contains over 1.25 million seed samples, a collection which is ever-growing as it opens three times a year to accept new deposits. The vault has space for 4.5 million crop varieties in total, all of which are designed to reside in the refrigerated warehouse-like interior of the so-called “cathedral”: home to three separate seed chambers. 

This unique facility celebrated its 15th anniversary earlier this year and is operated in partnership with the Norwegian ministry of Food and Agriculture, the regional genebank NordGen, and international organisation Crop Trust. To mark this anniversary, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault (virtually) opened its doors, launching an online tour which you can see for yourself here.

Nestled into a mountainside on the virtually uninhabited Norwegian island, the vault is buried beneath layers of Arctic permafrost. This, alongside an extensive cooling system, keeps the precious reserves stored within at a temperature of -18℃: the international standard for optimal seed conservation.

The location of the vault will prove particularly important should the cooling system ever fail to work, as it would still be expected to maintain a temperature of around -5 to -8℃. On top of this, studies suggest that many of the seeds stored inside will last for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. 

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault has already been put to good use; the first withdrawal from its stores was made by the International Centre for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA) in 2015 in order to replenish local supplies which had been jeopardised by the Syrian civil war.

Speaking of the growing importance of genebanks and storage facilities like this one, Crop Trust’s Executive Director highlighted omnipresent global threats such as the “climate crisis, biodiversity loss, natural catastrophes, and conflicts” and the destabilising effect they can have on our food systems, adding that we must prioritise the protection of the “tiny seeds that hold so much potential to adapt our future food.”

For Crop Trust’s Executive Director, Stefan Schmitz, the Svalbard vault represents “hope, unity, and security” as countries all over the world have banded together to work towards this shared goal. Discovering this project has certainly filled me with a lot more hope for the future, and endowed me with the realisation that there are, in fact, some impressively innovative solutions being developed to combat the many issues that keep us climate-anxious individuals up at night.

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