If there will ever be an apocalypse - our plants will be safe (humans hopefully as well).
To be honest: not our plants will be save, but their seeds.
How is that possible?
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is a plant seed bank located only 1300 km from the North Pole on Spitsbergen, a Norwegian island. But what exactly is a seed gene bank and what is its purpose?
“[The Svalbard Global Seed Vault] is a long-term seed storage facility, built to stand the test of time – and the challenge of natural or man-made disasters. The Seed Vault represents the world’s largest collection of crop diversity.” -CropTrust
Basically, The Seed Vault is a back-up of as many plant seeds and of as many different plant species as they can get. The main goal is to conserve genetic material, which is highly important for food, agriculture, plant breeding and research. The Svalbard Seed Vault is not the first and only one of its kind. In fact, there are many so called “crop gene banks” worldwide. However many of them are not as safe as the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Other seed banks might be exposed to e.g. war or natural catastrophes. Next to that, the location alone sets a risk for a gene bank. The failure of a cooling system in a hot country puts the seeds more at risk than a cooling system failure of a seed bank located close to the North Pole.
The construction of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault cost US $ 8.8 million and was completely funded by the Norwegian government. It opened in 2008, however, the idea of a global security storage of seeds already came to life in the 1980s. Today, the operation of the Seed Vault is carried out by NordGen (Nordid Genetic Resource Center).
The seed bank
Even if the idea of a global back-up storage facility for our seeds sounds spectacular, the constructed building is not. Only the entrance is visible from the outside. A 120 m long tunnel leads deep into a mountain into an old coal mine. White concrete is covering the walls and gray concrete the floor. The halls leading to the Seed Vaults are quite huge: They are 10 m wide and 6 m high. Heavy metal doors are giving entrance to the Seed Vaults and the mountain rocks surrounding the Seed Vault are partly 40 to 60 m thick. In its defense: The Seed Vault is constructed to protect and not to shine. Indeed, this unique construction and natural conditions protect the seeds from any kind of damage even during an atomic war.
You might be wondering, if you can ever visit the insides of the Seed Vault? Unfortunately, private tours and tourism is not allowed due to the strict security rules. However, you can explore the Seed Vault on your own in VR or in 360 mode: https://tour.croptrust.org
Does someone have access to the seeds?
Yes. In fact, the seeds are not stored, locked in and not accessible until a worldwide crisis happens. Scientists, plant breeders or similar groups can ask for specific seeds. However, it’s not the seed bank that grants access but the genebank, that is storing the seeds. If you are in need of specific seeds, it's normally easy to get access: In 2015, seeds were taken from the Seed Vault by ICARDA to restore seed banks in Morocco and Lebanon. The original central seed bank for this region, located in Aleppo, Syria, had been destroyed due to the civil war. After the seeds had been regrown, they were again deposited at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Until 2018, 92430 seeds have been withdrawn since its opening.
How are the seeds stored?
To guaranty the longevity of the seeds, the temperature in the storage rooms is kept at -18 °C and the moisture level is kept very low. The mountain, in which the Seed Vault is located, has a permafrost with a stable temperature between -3 and -4 °C. Additional cooling systems are helping to maintain -18 °C inside the Seed Vault. This will slow down any metabolic activity and with that aging of the seeds. The location of the seed bank in the arctic is helping to maintain the cool temperature more easily. Before new seeds are allowed in the Seed Vault, they have to get scanned to secure the seeds from any foreign materials. They are then placed in sealed three-ply foil packages and stored in plastic containers on metal racks, as you can see in the picture.
There is space for 4.5 million varieties of crops and as each variety holds space for an average of 500 seeds, there is a capacity of 2,5 billion seeds.
How many seeds are stored there right now?
At the moment, 107.7515 seeds from 6065 species and 76 depositors are stored in the seed bank. This makes it the most diverse collection of food crop seeds worldwide. Stored seeds reach from very exotic and unique plants to our daily crops like corn, wheat or rice.
You can even search through the seed portal: https://www.nordgen.org/en/global-seed-vault/search-seed-vault/
As good as everything sounds: there are some recent problems. In 2017, water flooded into the tunnel. The water came from heavy rainfalls in spring and melting ice due to climate change. Luckily, the water didn’t reach the seeds. However, this might happen in the (near) future. In fact, the average annual temperature of the town Longyearbyen, where the Seed Vault is located, reached -7,7 °C in 1900. Today, it reaches an average of -3,8 °C. This is the reason why the Seed Vault is getting some major improvements like new concrete access tunnels and a service building, which can provide emergency power and refrigerate units. The update will cost US $ 12.7, more than the original building costs, but it will be worth the money.
"It is a great and important task to safeguard all the genetic material that is crucial to global food security," - Norway's Minister of Agriculture and Food Jon Georg Dale