In Depth

What is in the Arctic doomsday vault?

A further 60,000 seed samples to be added to Norwegian bunker in bid to protect plant varieties from global catastrophe

An Arctic bunker full of seeds dubbed the “doomsday vault” is set to receive thousands of additional samples this week, pushing the total number of seeds it holds to over 1 million.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault (SGSV), buried deep in a mountainside on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard in the Arctic Circle, is designed to hold a huge variety of plant seed samples as back-up stock in case of a global catastrophe.

And with maintenance under way to prevent flooding, as climate change fuels the melting of permafrost around the vault, scientists have used the upgrade as an excuse to add another 60,000 crop varieties from across the world.

Stefan Schmitz, who manages the reserve as head of the Crop Trust, said: “As the pace of climate change and biodiversity loss increases, there is new urgency surrounding efforts to save food crops at risk of extinction. 

“The large scope of today’s seed deposit reflects worldwide concern about the impacts of climate change and biodiversity loss on food production.”

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What is the vault?

The SGSV is, according to the Crop Trust, a “long-term seed storage facility, built to stand the test of time - and the challenge of natural or man-made disasters”.

The stated intention of the vault, which now contains over 1 million samples, is to safeguard the seeds of the world’s food plants in the event of a global crisis.

It is situated on the island of Spitsbergen, part of Norway’s Svalbard archipelago; one of the most northerly inhabited places on Earth. The vault is around three miles from the island’s largest town, Longyearbyen, and just 600 miles from the North Pole.

Encyclopaedia Britannica says that the site was chosen for its “cold conditions and permafrost, which would help preserve the seeds in the event the vault’s cooling systems failed”.

Completed in 2008, the SGSV was built by the Norwegian government in collaboration with the Crop Trust, and reportedly has the capacity to hold around 4.5 million varieties of seeds, with individual countries providing the seed samples to be preserved.

Why is it being upgraded?

Despite being built to withstand a changing global landscape, three years ago it appeared that climate change had accelerated to a point at which the vault failed to keep up.

In spring 2017, unusually warm temperatures in Svalbard caused heavy rainfall and significant permafrost melt, causing a deluge of water which breached the entrance to the vault and flooded it.

According to The Verge, the water didn’t make it to the seeds, instead freezing in the entrance way before any damage could be done to the samples. But the incident has “raised questions over the durability of a seed bank that was supposed to operate without people’s intervention”.

The Guardian reports that a major upgrade this winter has seen the 130-metre entrance tunnel “fully waterproofed and the cooling equipment that keeps the vault at -18C moved to a new service building, so heat from the machinery can be released outside”.

“It is always dangerous to talk about something being completely failsafe and impregnable,” said Hannes Dempewolf, a scientist at Crop Trust. “In 20, 30, 40 years down the line, we will continue to monitor the situation to see whether any other upgrades are necessary.”

Why are new seeds being added?

The upgrade has prompted the introduction of 60,000 new samples into the vault, bringing the total of crop varieties to around 1.05 million – about two-fifths of the total number in the world.

As Stefan Schmitz, executive director of the Crop Trust, explains, this “demonstrates a growing global commitment – from the institutions and countries that have made deposits today and indeed the world – to the conservation and use of the crop diversity that is crucial for farmers in their efforts to adapt to changing growing conditions”.

The Japan Times reports that both common and rarer varieties of grains are being sent by institutions in countries such as Brazil, the US, Germany, Morocco, Mali, Israel and Mongolia.

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