Sustainable Development

Buried 400 feet into a mountain, the 'doomsday vault' is keeping the world's seeds safe

Journalists gather near the entrance to the Global Seed Vault in Longyearbyen February 25, 2008. The vault has been built in a mountainside cavern on Spitsbergen Island around 1,000 km (600 miles) from the North Pole to store the world's crop seeds in case of disaster. The official opening will take place February 26.   REUTERS/Bob Strong (NORWAY) - RTR1XK1N

The Doomsday Vault is in one of the world's remotest locations. Image: REUTERS/Bob Strong

Lydia Ramsey
Editorial Intern, Business Insider Science
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Buried in the side of a mountain in Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago between mainland Norway and the North Pole, the Global Seed Vault stores virtually every kind of seed.

And on Wednesday, that seed vault got even more seeds — almost 50,000 new samples — to help preserve biodiversity. Those returning samples include the ones sent out in 2015 to replace a collection that had been damaged by the Syrian civil war.

Cary Fowler, the man considered the "father" of the seed vault and a former executive director of the international nonprofit organization Crop Trust, compares it to a safety deposit box: the point of the vault is not for apocalyptic scenarios, but serves more as a sort of back-up drive.

Fowler told Business Insider in October that the vault is used to store duplicates of existing seed banks that have been collecting seeds for 100 years. That way, if a regional seed vault loses something, the Svalbard collection can replace the sample.

The vault is located in Svalbard, an archipelago that's part of Norway. It's a cold area filled with polar bears and snow scooters, along with brightly colored houses.

Image: Mari Tefre

The archipelago is located in the Arctic Ocean, midway between the North Pole and Norway, where the warmest temperature this year was 58 degrees Fahrenheit. The winters remain below 0 and -1 degrees Fahrenheit.

Image: Norwegian Meteorological Institute

The entrance to the vault sticks out of a mountain, illuminated with a light installation by Dyveke Sanne.

Image: Mari Tefre

Inside the entrance, there's a tunnel that runs from the entrance to the vault's rooms, 426 feet deep into the mountain.

Image: Mari Tefre

Fowler said there are some misconceptions about what the vault is used for. "People will say, 'how can you have enough seeds up there?' That's not the point, it's not for planting. This is really a genetic resource for plant breeding."

Image: Jim Richardson

Svalbard was an ideal location. Because it's so cold, the seeds can stay frozen in the permafrost. Importantly, says Fowler, "the seeds don't have to be used as is." Instead, researchers can use them to study potentially beneficial traits, like those for withstanding disease or climate change, and hopefully one day incorporate those into current crops.Mari Tefre

Image: Mari Tefre

Every year, gene-banks provide samples to crop breeders to test out, which in turn becomes different varieties of crops. Below, people taste tomatoes at a Seed Savers Exchange in the US.

Image: Jim Richardson

"We don't need to experience apocalypse in order for the Seed Vault to be useful and to repay its costs many times over," Fowler wrote in his book. "We ... were not anticipating the end of the world. ... We were pragmatists. We wanted to address a problem we were already experiencing: the loss of diversity in individual gene-banks."

Image: Mari Tefre

Fowler said the sample of the seeds taken out — and now replaced — from Syria are a great example of the bank's function. "It illustrates why we built it," Fowler said. "Loss of that collection would be irreplaceable. ... I tell people it's a great story — a sad story — of the seed vault functioning as an insurance policy.

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Related topics:
Sustainable DevelopmentNature and BiodiversityClimate Action
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