While it may look – and sound – like the lair of a super villain, the Doomsday Vault in Svalbard is probably one of the most significant natural history collections in the world. Housing over 890,000 seeds from over 150 countries, it aims to safeguard the future of agriculture on a rapidly changing planet.
Known officially as the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, the facility is turning 10 this year. On the eve of this anniversary, Australia has announced that they are now sending a shipment of more than 30 crates containing 34,000 seeds – their largest deposit into the seed bank yet – while the Norwegian government, who own and manage the collection, are investing a further $13 million dollars into improving the vault.
Built into an old coal mine on the Arctic island of Spitsbergen that plunges into the permafrost, the idea is that the permanently frozen soil keeps the samples below zero, thus preserving the seeds for up to a century. This, they hope, will protect the world’s most significant crop varieties from any natural or manmade disaster that could strike.
Unfortunately, when the vault was conceived, designed, and built, the engineers did not expect that climate change would begin thawing the permafrost at such a rapid rate. This lead to the seed bank being flooded in 2016, after higher than average temperatures combined with a heavy rainfall. Water made it 15 meters (nearly 50 feet) down into the vault before it froze, meaning that no samples were damaged, but it did make many concerned for the future.
But the Norwegian government wants to take all the precautions they can, and have announced on the vaults 10th anniversary that they will spend $12.6 million as part of a long-term plan to improve and extend the performance of the facility. This will include emergency power and refrigeration units, as well as a new access tunnel.
If this all sounds like it might be a little over the top, well the vault has already successfully been put to use. In 2015 researchers withdrew seeds from the vault for the first time ever, after the civil war in Syria destroyed the main seed bank in Aleppo. Containing 155,000 varieties of crop, it was a central agricultural archive for the Fertile Crescent, one of the main hubs where farming began 10,000 years ago.
The seeds that had been stored in the Svalbard vault were withdrawn and sent to two centers – one in Morocco and the other in Lebanon – in order to rebuild a collection. The seeds were successfully planted and grown, with a replacement shipment of the seeds sent back to Norway in 2017.
The new upgrades will hopefully mean that the vault will continue to be able to offer such a globally important service in the future, should anything else disastrous happen.