A fascinating project, which is being termed a “doomsday” vault, is underway in Norway’s Svalbard Archipelago. Proposed two years ago, and with construction of the first tunnel beginning a year later, the latest phase of this frozen storage facility is intended to be a repository for the seeds of around 4.5 million agricultural plant species. Whatever might happen, whether through natural disasters, global warming, war, disease, climate change or even in the event that species are eradicated by the overgrowth of others, the known catalogue of plants is future-proof, and can be reproduced.


Last week, the refrigeration process began in the latest 400 foot long tunnel already blasted into the frozen mountainside. With the vault designed for the foil-wrapped seeds already in place, special refrigeration units from the mainland are being used to begin the process of cooling the chamber down to zero Celsius. When it is reached, the low temperature will be maintained by a smaller refrigeration unit, aided by the natural permafrost.


Although there are other seed banks in the world – an estimated 1,400 of them – they usually belong to an individual country, and are intended only for their own use. The Svalbard Seed Vault is supposed to be a global resource, and as a last resort backup for all the other vaults. Chosen in part for its remote location, it is hoped that it is future-proof. Some other seed banks have not survived. The Phillipines seed vault was destroyed by a typhoon in 2006, and war has wiped out seed banks in both Aghanistan and Iraq.

Cary Fowler, Executive Director of the Rome-based Global Crop Diversity Trust, one of the partner organisations in the project, said: “The seed vault is the perfect place for keeping seeds safe for centuries. At these temperatures, seeds for important crops like wheat, barley and peas can last for up to 1,000 years.”

It’s an incredibly impressive project, especially to have come so far in such a short timescale. Let’s just hope that we never need to use it!


Photo credits: Odd Arvid Stromstad; Global Crop Diversity Trust



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