The impressive structure protrudes from the side of a snowy mountain on the Svalbard Archipelago, a cluster of islands about halfway between Norway and the North Pole.
Art installations on the building’s rooftop and front façade glimmer like diamonds in the polar night, but it is what lies buried deep inside the frozen rock, 475 feet from the building’s entrance, that is most precious. Here, in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, are backup copies of more than a million of the world’s agricultural seeds.
The Svalbard vault — which has been called the Doomsday Vault, or a Noah’s Ark for seeds — preserves the genetic materials of more than 6000 crop species and their wild relatives, including many of the varieties within those species. Svalbard’s collection represents all the traits that will enable the plants that feed the world to adapt – with the help of farmers and plant breeders – to rapidly changing climactic conditions, including rising temperatures, more intense drought, and increasing soil salinity. “We save these seeds because we want to ensure food security for future generations,” says Grethe Helene Evjen, Senior Advisor at the Norwegian Ministry of Agriculture and Food .
A recent study in the journal Nature predicted that global warming could cause catastrophic losses of biodiversity in regions across the globe throughout this century. Yet global warming also threatens the permafrost that surrounds the seed vault, the very thing that was once considered a failsafe means of keeping these seeds frozen and safeguarding the diversity of our crops. In fact, record temperatures in Svalbard a few years ago – and a significant breach of water into the access tunnel to the vault — prompted the Norwegian government to invest $20 million euros on improvements at the facility to further secure the genetic resources locked inside. The hope: that technology can work in concert with nature’s freezer to keep the world’s seeds viable.
“Before, we trusted the permafrost,” says Hege Njaa Aschim, a spokesperson for Statsbygg, the government agency that recently completed the upgrades at the seed vault. “We do not trust the permafrost anymore.”
The Apex of the Global Conservation System
More than 1700 genebanks around the globe preserve the diverse seed varieties from their regions. They range from small community seed banks in developing countries, where small farmers save and trade their seeds with growers in nearby villages, to specialized university collections, to national and international genetic resource repositories. But many of these facilities are vulnerable to war, natural disasters, or even lack of funding.
“If anything should happen to the resources in a regular genebank, Svalbard is the backup – it’s essentially the apex of the global conservation system,” says Kent Nnadozie, Secretary of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture at the United Nations, who likens the Global Vault to the Central Reserve Bank. “You have regular banks that do active trading, but the Central Bank is the final reserve where the banks store their gold deposits.”
Similarly, farmers deposit their seeds in regional genebanks, and also look to these banks for new varieties to help their crops adapt to, say, increasing temperatures, or resist intrusive pests. Regional banks, in turn, store duplicates from their collections at Svalbard. These seeds remain the sovereign property of the country or institution depositing them; only they can “make a withdrawal.”
The Global Vault has already proven invaluable: The International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), formerly located outside of Aleppo, Syria, held more than 140,000 seed samples, including plants that were extinct in their natural habitats, before the Syrian Crisis in 2012. Fortunately, they had managed to back up most of their seed samples at Svalbard before they were forced to relocate to Lebanon and Morocco. In 2017, ICARDA became the first – and only – organization to withdraw their stored seeds. They have now regenerated almost all of the samples at their new locations and recently redeposited new seeds for safekeeping at Svalbard.
Rapid Global Warming Threatens Permafrost
The Global Vault, a joint venture between the Norwegian government, the Crop Trust and the Nordic Genetic Resource Centre (NordGen) that started operating in 2008, was sited in Svalbard in part because of its remote yet accessible location: Svalbard is the northernmost inhabited spot on Earth with an airport. But experts also thought it a failsafe choice for long-term seed storage because its permafrost would offer natural freezing – even if cooling systems were to fail. No one imagined that the permafrost could fail.
“We’ve had record temperatures in the region recently, and there are a lot of signs that global warming is happening faster at the extreme latitudes,” says Geoff Hawtin, a world-renowned authority in plant conservation, who is the founding director of — and now advisor to — the Crop Trust. “Svalbard is still arguably one of the safest places for the seeds from a temperature point of view, but it’s actually not going to be as cold as we thought 20 years ago.”
A recent report by the Norwegian Centre for Climate Services predicted that Svalbard could become 50 degrees Fahrenheit warmer by the year 2100. And data from the Norwegian government’s environmental monitoring system in Svalbard shows that the permafrost is already thawing: The “active layer,” that is, the layer of surface soil that seasonally thaws, has become 25-30 cm thicker since 1998.
Though the permafrost surrounding the seed vault chambers, which are situated well below the active layer, is still intact, the permafrost around the access tunnel never re-established as expected after construction of the Global Vault twelve years ago. As a result, when Svalbard saw record high temperatures and unprecedented rainfall in 2016, about 164 feet of rainwater and snowmelt leaked into the tunnel, turning it into a skating rink and spurring authorities to take what they called a “better safe than sorry approach.” They invested in major upgrades to the facility. “The seeds in the vault were never threatened,” says Aschim, “but technology has become more important at Svalbard.”
Technology Gives Nature a Boost
For now, the permafrost deep inside the mountain still keeps the temperature in the vault down to about -25°F. The cooling systems then give nature a mechanical boost to keep the seed vault chilled even further, to about -64°F, the optimal temperature for conserving seeds. In addition to upgrading to a more effective and sustainable cooling system that runs on CO2, the Norwegian government added backup generators, removed heat-generating electrical equipment from inside the facility to an outside building, installed a thick, watertight door to the vault, and replaced the corrugated steel access tunnel with a cement tunnel that uses the same waterproofing technology as the North Sea oil platforms.
To re-establish the permafrost around the tunnel, they layered cooling pipes with frozen soil around the concrete tunnel, covered the frozen soil with a cooling mat, and topped the cooling mat with the original permafrost soil. They also added drainage ditches on the mountainside to divert meltwater away from the tunnel as the climate gets warmer and wetter.
New Deposits to the Global Vault
The day before COVID-19 arrived in Norway, on February 25th, Prime Minister Erna Solberg hosted the biggest seed-depositing event in the vault’s history in honor of the new and improved vault. As snow fell on Svalbard, depositors from almost every continent traveled the windy road from Longyearbyen up Platåfjellet Mountain and braved frigid -8°F weather to celebrate the massive technical upgrades to the facility – and to hand over their seeds.
Among the 35 depositors were several bringing their seeds to Svalbard for the first time, including the Cherokee Nation, which deposited nine heirloom seed varieties that predate European colonization, and Israel’s University of Haifa, whose deposit included multiple genotypes of wild emmer wheat, an ancient relative of the modern domesticated crop. The storage boxes carried ceremoniously over the threshold that day contained more than 65,000 new seed samples, bringing the total to more than a million, and almost filling the first of three seed chambers in the vault. (The Global Vault can store up to 4.5 million seed samples.)
“Svalbard’s samples contain all the possibilities, all the options for the future of our agricultural crops – it’s how crops are going to adapt,” says Cary Fowler, former executive director of the Crop Trust, who was instrumental in establishing the Global Vault. “If our crops don’t adapt to climate change, then neither will we.” Dr. Fowler says he is confident that with the recent improvements in the vault, the seeds are going to remain viable for a very long time.
“It’s sometimes tempting to get distracted by the romanticism of a seed vault inside a mountain near the North Pole – it’s a little bit James Bondish,” muses Dr. Fowler. “But the reality is we’ve essentially put an end to the extinction of more than a million samples of biodiversity forever.”