Norway Is Spending Millions to Update Doomsday Vault

The Svalbard Seed Vault on a rare non-snowy day
The Svalbard Seed Vault on a rare non-snowy day | © Christopher Michel / Flickr
When it comes to the continuation of life on earth, no amount of money would be too high a cost. That’s why Norway is spending 100 million NOK (US$13 million) to upgrade the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Otherwise known as the “Doomsday Bank,” the Seed Vault on the Spitsbergen Island of the Svalbard archipelago just had its 10-year anniversary, and celebrated with a top-up of seeds and plans for an upgrade.

Buried deep under a snowy mountain, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is preserving a wide variety of seeds from plants from all over the world, in case of a global crisis. Over a million seeds, to be exact, each sealed individually in a heatproof packet, in a permafrost space. These seeds are kept in the secure bank in case of nuclear war, climate change, or any geopolitical disaster that would require replanting the future from the ground up.

As with the safety boxes that are kept in a bank, the seeds are still in the ownership of the countries or organizations that send them there for safekeeping. To that end, the location of the Seed Vault was no accident: the islands of the Arctic archipelago are remote and difficult to access (or wage a war in), and there are practically no roads between the settlements. It sounds like a safe and quiet enough place for the world’s insurance policy when it comes to agriculture – and the building itself was created to withstand both the extreme temperatures and the passage of time.

Svalbard Global Seed Vault, February 2008. Guarded by a frozen polar bear during the opening.

In February 2018, the vault celebrated its 10th anniversary with a fresh batch of seeds that helped it to hit the million mark. According to the Crop Trust, the organization for conserving crop diversity that’s behind the Seed Vault, this is a really significant achievement. To lose a seed, ergo a crop variety, is as serious and irreversible as it is for an animal species to go extinct. New seeds are being deposited twice a year, from rare and unusual ones to everyday nutrition staples like barley. The Vault can hold 2,5 billion seeds, from 4,5 million different varieties. Of course, like any other bank, the Vault does withdrawals as well: after the crisis in Syria, 90,000 seeds were withdrawn for replanting.

That’s why it’s so important that Norway is making this investment. The 100 million NOK is going towards upgrading and extending the viability of the Vault, to make sure it will be around for a long time, keeping safe the genetic material we need for our agriculture and food. Who would have thought that sowing the seeds of a better future for all humankind would start in a frozen, remote island halfway between Norway and the North Pole?

The Svalbard Seed Vault © Frode Bjorshol/Flickr