The Doomsday Vault - the secret food facility that could save the world

The Doomsday Vault - the secret food facility that could save the world

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Buried deep within the Arctic ice lies a top-secret treasure trove. Situated just 800 miles away from the North Pole and inaccessible by roads or conventional transport, this remote, frozen fortress is home to something far more valuable than jewels or gold.

Since first opening a decade ago, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault has grown to become humanity’s backup plan - guarding against global political or environmental disaster. Designed to help agriculture recover in the event of armageddon, the facility is home to over 430,000,000 different seeds from more than 1,000,000 individual species of crop, all tightly sealed, packaged and ready to be released should they ever be needed.

Launched in 2008, the Svalbard vault is the brainchild of Norwegian conservation group NordGen. Jointly funded by the Norwegian government and the Crop Trust, the project is an internationally coordinated effort, encompassing seed samples from all over the world. The most recent deposit of 70,000 new seeds - which tipped the total number of species over the one million mark - included unique varieties of rice from Asia, black eyed peas and bambara groundnuts from Africa, and brewing barley from Ireland. It may be north of the Arctic Circle, but the Svalbard vault is a resource for all humanity.

The vault is not the only project of its kind. For decades, genebanks all over the world have been working diligently to safeguard humanity’s future by providing a refuge for essential crops and plantlife. Indeed, there are over 1,700 individual facilities dotted all over the earth. However, as geopolitical and environmental threats have become ever more pronounced, many of these deposits and their precious cargo have fallen into jeopardy. 

Korean plant seeds in Svalbard Global Seed Vault This photo, provided by the Baekdu Mount Range Arboretum in South Korea's eastern mountain town of Jeongseon on March 12, 2020, shows an official storing 10 kinds of seeds of plants native to the Baekdu range on the Korean Peninsula at Svalbard Global Seed Vault on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen last month. (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) Credit: PA

The various threats facing the other seed repositories were a major factor in the foundation of Svalbard facility. With something as banal as a poorly functioning freezer potentially capable of ruining an entire collection, it became clear that a state-of-the-art, centralised solution was needed. Svalbard, therefore, functions predominantly as a backup, featuring duplicate samples from the rest of the genebanks’ extensive collections. With potential capacity for nearly 2.5 billion total seeds, Svalbard acts - in the words of Crop Trust executive director Marie Haga - as a means to “ensure future generations don't just survive, but thrive."

The key to the success of the project is its location. It is no accident that the task of safeguarding the future of humanity is being carried out as far away from people as possible. Covered in a thick layer of permafrost and surrounded by conditions that remain relatively stable all year round, Svalbard is an ideal home for a facility where consistency is paramount. There is very little geological or tectonic activity, and humidity remains low all year round. The deposit is also built into the side of a mountain, 427 feet above sea level, helping to further protect the seeds from the threat of flooding.

Man in the Svalbard seed vault

The facility itself is a masterpiece of engineering. When it was first launched in 2008, Time Magazine recognised the project as one of the 10 best inventions of the year. Vacuum packed seed pockets are kept at a constant temperature of -18 degrees celsius, meaning that the seeds remain viable for centuries. In the event of a system failure, the facility has been designed to ensure that any temperature change is extremely gradual. It’s estimated that even after a total loss of power it will take the facility’s internal temperature three weeks to rise to -3 and two centuries to get above zero.   

Despite the cutting edge technology already in place, the Svalbard vault is constantly adapting. In 2017, thanks to unusually high Arctic temperatures, meltwater made its way into one of the upper chambers, partially flooding the facility (to the horror of everyone connected with it). Though no seeds were damaged, the incident was enough to prompt a dramatic redesign of the three main storage vaults, making them entirely waterproof and safe from the potential impact of global warming.

Though it has been primarily designed for the wellbeing of future generations, the vault has also played a central role in a number of contemporary humanitarian relief efforts. In 2015 and 2017, 90,000 lentil, wheat and chickpea seeds from the vault were shipped to Syria as part of an emergency extraction to help starving populations rebuild their lives through agriculture. Many of these seeds have been successfully cultivated and replaced in Svalbard, showing how crucial this resource could be in the event of a more global catastrophe.

Though we may hope that these lifelines in the Arctic ice are never needed, it is nonetheless reassuring to know that a coordinated effort is taking place every day to safeguard our future. The success of the Svalbard facility is not only good news for the future of food, but also proves what is possible if scientists and nations work together for a common purpose. As Marie Haga puts it, “The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is an iconic reminder of the remarkable conservation effort that is taking place every day, around the world and around the clock.” If nothing else, the vault is proof that when we work together, humanity can achieve amazing things.