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Norway: ‘Doomsday’ Vault Where World’s Seeds Are Kept Safe

The entrance to the Svalbard Global Seed VaultFredrik Naumann—Panos The entrance to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault

inside The ‘Doomsday’ Vault

By jennifer duggan / spitsbergen

Deep in the bowels of an icy mountain on an island above the Arctic Circle between Norway and the North Pole lies a resource of vital importance for the future of human­kind. It’s not coal, oil or precious minerals, but seeds.

Millions of these tiny brown specks, from more than 930,000 varieties of food crops, are stored in the Global Seed Vault on Spitsbergen, part of Norway’s Svalbard archipelago. It is essentially a huge safety deposit box, holding the world’s largest collection of agricultural biodiversity. “Inside this building is 13,000 years of agricultural history,” says Brian Lainoff, lead partnerships coordinator of the Crop Trust, which manages the vault, as he hauls open the huge steel door leading inside the mountain.

It would be difficult to find a place more remote than the icy wilderness of Svalbard. It is the farthest north you can fly on a commercial airline, and apart from the nearby town of Longyearbyen, it is a vast white expanse of frozen emptiness.

The Global Seed Vault has been dubbed the “doomsday” vault, which conjures up an image of a reserve of seeds for use in case of an apocalyptic event or a global catastrophe. But it is the much smaller, localized destruction and threats facing gene banks all over the world that the vault was designed to protect against—and it’s why the vault was opened in February, when TIME visited.

On this occasion, samples from India, Pakistan and Mexico were being deposited alongside seeds from Syria, many of whose citizens are living through their own apocalypse. “There are big and small doomsdays going on around the world every day. Genetic material is being lost all over the globe,” says Marie Haga, executive director of the Crop Trust. This past winter offered the gene bank a chance to redress the balance.

Near the entrance to the facility, a rectangular wedge of concrete that juts out starkly against the snowy landscape, the doomsday nickname seems eerily apt. It was precisely for its remoteness that Svalbard was chosen as the location of the vault. “It is away from the places on earth where you have war and terror, everything maybe you are afraid of in other places. It is situated in a safe place,” says Bente Naeverdal, a property manager who oversees the day-to-day operation of the vault.

Its only neighbor is a similar repository buried away from the dangers of the world: the Arctic World Archive, which aims to preserve data for the world’s governments and private institutions, opened deep in a nearby mine on March 27.

The entrance leads to a small tunnel-like room filled with the loud whirring noise of electricity and cooling systems required to keep the temperature within the vault consistent. Through one door is a wide concrete tunnel illuminated by strip lighting leading 430 ft. down into the mountain. At the end of this corridor is a chamber, an added layer of security to protect the vaults containing the seeds.

There are three vaults leading off from the chamber, but only one is currently in use, and its door is covered in a thick layer of ice, hinting at the subzero temperatures inside. In here, the seeds are stored in vacuum-packed silver packets and test tubes in large boxes that are neatly stacked on floor-to-ceiling shelves. They have very little monetary value, but the boxes potentially hold the keys to the future of global food security.

Over the past 50 years, agricultural practices have changed dramatically, with technological advances allowing large-scale crop production. But while crop yields have increased, biodiversity has decreased to the point that now only about 30 crops provide 95% of human food-energy needs. Only 10% of the rice varieties that China used in the 1950s are still used today, for example. The U.S. has lost over 90% of its fruit and vegetable varieties since the 1900s. This monoculture nature of agriculture leaves food supplies more susceptible to threats such as diseases and drought.

The seeds lying in the deep freeze of the vault include wild and old varieties, many of which are not in general use anymore. And many don’t exist outside of the seed collections they came from. But the genetic diversity contained in the vault could provide the DNA traits needed to develop new strains for whatever challenges the world or a particular region will face in the future.One of the 200,000 varieties of rice within the vault could have the trait needed to adapt rice to higher temperatures, for example, or to find resistance to a new pest or disease. This is particularly important with the challenges of climate change. “Not too many think about crop diversity as being so fundamentally important, but it is. It is almost as important as water and air,” says Haga. “Seeds generally are the basis for everything. Not only what we eat, but what we wear, nature all about us.”

There are as many as 1,700 versions of the vault, called gene banks, all over the world. This global network collects, preserves and shares seeds to further agricultural research and develop new varieties. The Svalbard vault was opened in 2008, effectively as a backup storage unit for all those hundreds of thousands of varieties. The idea was conceived in the 1980s by Cary Fowler, a former executive director of the Crop Trust, but only started to become reality after an International Seed Treaty negotiated by the U.N. was signed in 2001. Construction was funded by the Norwegian government, which operates the vault in partnership with the Crop Trust. The goal is to find and house a copy of every unique seed that exists in the global gene banks; soon the vault will make room for its millionth variety. It also works in tandem with those gene banks when their material is lost or destroyed.

At the end of one of the long rows of seeds inside the vault, a large and symbolic gap has only just been refilled. The black boxes there look like all the others in the vault, but they have had a long journey. The International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) is a global agricultural-research organization that had been based in Syria but was forced to flee its headquarters, just outside of Aleppo, because of the civil war. The organization evacuated its international staff in 2012, but some Syrian researchers stayed behind to rescue equipment and even animals.

But as the fighting intensified, they were forced to leave behind their gene bank, one of the world’s most valuable collections of seeds, containing some of the oldest varieties of wheat and barley. ICARDA re-established its headquarters in Morocco and Lebanon, and restarted the gene bank in 2015 using seeds from the Svalbard vault—the first-ever withdrawal there. Woken from their icy slumber, the seeds were planted in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley and in Morocco, and their offspring were carefully collected and processed to return to the vault. In late February, ICARDA returned the varieties of seeds it had taken out. “These seeds have come full circle,” Lainoff explains.

The gene bank in Aleppo was not the first to be threatened by war. Gene banks in Afghanistan and Iraq have been destroyed, along with them genetic material that wasn’t backed up in Svalbard. But it is not just armed conflict that threatens these valuable resources. Some have been hit by natural disasters, like the Philippine national gene bank, which was damaged by flooding from a typhoon and later a fire. But a lack of resources is probably the biggest threat facing the world’s gene banks.

Woefully underfunded, many lack the resources to properly store or protect the seeds they hold. The Crop Trust is now raising money for an endowment fund to ensure that the world’s 1,700 gene-bank facilities are able to continue acting as guarantors of global biodiversity.

You don’t need to look far to discover the sacrifices made to keep these kernels of reproduction safe. One of the most historically significant deposits of seeds inside the vault comes from a collection in St. Petersburg’s Vavilov Research Institute, which originates from one of the first collections in the world. During the siege of Leningrad, about a dozen scientists barricaded themselves in the room containing the seeds in order to protect them from hungry citizens and the surrounding German army.

As the siege dragged on, a number of them eventually died from starvation. Despite being surrounded by seeds and plant material, they steadfastly refused to save themselves by eating any of it, such was their conviction about the importance of the seeds to aid Russia’s recovery after war and to help protect the future of humankind. One of the scientists, Dmitri Ivanov, is said to have died surrounded by bags of rice.

In an age of heightened geopolitical tensions and uncertainty, the Svalbard vault is an unusual and hopeful exercise in international cooperation for the good of humankind. Any organization or country can send seeds to it, and there are no restrictions because of politics or the requirements of diplomacy. Red wooden boxes from North Korea sit alongside black boxes from the U.S. Over on the next aisle, boxes of seeds from Ukraine sit atop seeds from Russia. “The seeds don’t care that there are North Korean seeds and South Korean seeds in the same aisle,” Lainoff says. “They are cold and safe up there, and that’s all that really matters.”

Reporting for this article was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting

It is essentially a huge safety deposit box, holding the world’s largest collection of agricultural biodiversity.

Seed Collection

The Seed Collection represents the greatest concentration of living seed and plant diversity on Earth. Situated in the Millennium Seed Bank, it’s a global resource for conservation and sustainable use.

About this collection

The planet is facing a critical time. Two in five plant species are threatened with extinction, with huge implications for the future of all ecosystems.

The Seed Collection at the Millennium Seed Bank (MSB) is the most diverse wild plant species genetic resource in the world, with over 2.4 billion seeds representing almost 40,000 different species.

Seed banks are a cost-effective tool for long-term ex-situ (away from their natural habitat) plant conservation. Collections are dried and frozen, preserved for the future.

They provide an insurance policy against the threats plants face in the wild.

At Kew, seeds are collected through global partnerships and field research as part of the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership (MSBP) network.

Once stored in the Millennium Seed Bank facility at Wakehurst, they act as resources available for research in finding sustainable solutions to global challenges.

We curate our collections to the highest standard, as high-quality collections maximise longevity in storage and the useability of collections for research, re-introduction and restoration.

What’s represented in the seed bank?
  • Over 96,000 seed collections
  • Represents nearly 40,000 species
  • Over 6,100 genera
  • 349 families

Using the Seed Collection

Our collections are available for research, plant-breeding, species re-introduction, vegetation restoration, education and display.

Seeds collected through the MSBP are duplicated to the MSB under the Convention for Biological Diversity and Nagoya Protocol. Where partner agreements and seed numbers allow, seeds can be distributed via the Kew Seed List.

Seed banking practices

Kew was an early leader in the development of seed banking practices; first developed for crops and then expanding to wild species.

A straight-forward practice, it helps 90% of seed-bearing plant species survive by drying and then freezing their seeds, so extending their longevity reliably.

We do this in our purpose-built, state of the art facility at Wakehurst.

Once collected and transported to the seed bank, seeds are prepared and dried to 15% equilibrium relative humidity, before storage in deep freeze chambers (-20°C).

Scientists in MSB vault

Curation

The collections are curated to international gene bank standards, at every stage of the process.

These are not always applicable to wild species collections; so we used our considerable experience to set global standards across the partnership. These are used across the MSB Partnership to ensure that collections are of optimum quality and form the basis of our training programmes.

  • High quality passport data
  • Plant identification
  • Longevity and viability of each collection
  • Understanding how to break dormancy
  • Maximising germination to avoid selection during the life cycle
Recalcitrant species

Recalcitrant species produce seeds that cannot be dried and therefore cannot be banked using conventional methods.

There is a spectrum of seed storage behaviour and longevity, even within orthodox species, depending on phylogeny and environments (maternal and post-harvest).

Current data suggests that around one in ten species have recalcitrant seeds, but the rate is habitat dependent. In moist tropical forests over half of tree and shrub species could have recalcitrant seeds.

Research is underway to develop novel methods, including scoping out a large-scale cryogenic storage facility, the Kew Cryosphere.

Backup of sub-samples in cryo-storage is routinely used to extend the longevity of short-lived species.

Fraxinus excelsior

Targets and priorities

As we move beyond 2020, we are excited to be continuing our seed conservation work. We will be looking at:

  • Increasing our focus on collection quality to ensure all collections are fit for purpose
  • Improving the genetic diversity captured in our collections, increasing our focus on sub-specific taxa, and appropriate eco-geographic and genetic representation through multi-provenance species collections
  • Prioritising plants threatened with extinction, as well as endemic plants and those most useful for the future for human adaptation and innovation
  • Prioritizing ecosystems at risk of climate change (montane, maritime and island)
  • Forestry and trees: the MSBP works to support tree conservation both in the UK through the UK National Tree Seed Project and around the world through the Globe Tree Seed Bank programme
  • Crop wild relatives: These species hold important traits for development of resilience to global change and are under-represented in seed banks. The Global Crop Diversity Trust and Kew have collaborated on the Adapting Agriculture to Climate Change project covering 29 major crops. We are looking to do more

Researcher taking specimen out of Herbarium cupboard

Access our Collections

Find out how to arrange visit or access the online database. Please note visits to our Collections are for academic researchers only.

The Seed Collection represents the greatest concentration of living seed and plant diversity on Earth. Situated in the Millennium Seed Bank, it’s a global resource for conservation and sustainable use.