In early 2017, the Svalbard seed vault made news when a troublesome flood threatened its irreplaceable stash of seeds. Buried in a mountain on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen in the Arctic Ocean and well above the Arctic Circle, the cold temperatures there are supposed to be part of the protections for the more than one million crop varieties from over 5,000 separate plant species that are sheltered there.
But that winter, unseasonably warm Arctic temperatures caused rain when there should have been snow, softening the permafrost into which the vault is sunk. The entry tunnel to the vault was flooded, and when temperatures dropped again, it refroze, temporarily blocking the entrance.
Since this event, a 20-million-Euro refurbishment of the facility has been completed, with the potential future loss of that permafrost in mind. The vault has been entirely waterproofed, according to Norwegian officials. With the new upgrades to the facility, the Svalbard seed vault also received more than 60,000 new samples, each containing around 500 hopefully viable seeds, to provide redundancy to other seed vaults around the world.
Recent deposits at the Svalbard seed vault include the seeds of 27 wild plants from Prince Charles’s Highgrove estate; candy roaster squash seeds, deposited by the Cherokee Nation; seeds of wild emmer wheat, also known as the “mother of wheat”; potato varieties from Peru; and other crops from Mongolia, Morocco, Myanmar, and New Zealand.
“Crop diversity is an essential basis of food production,” said Hannes Dempewolfe, a scientist and representative of Crop Trust, which operates the vault in partnership with the Nordic Genetic Resource Centre. “And [this] vault is the essential backup facility for seed banks around the world, safeguarding the biodiversity they hold.”
Crop Trust estimates the vault’s 1,050,000 crop varieties represent about 40 percent of all crop cultivars in the world. If that number seems low, research indicates that since the rise of industrial farming in the early 20th century, we’ve lost approximately 93 percent of all fruit and vegetable variants in favor of uniform crops. As we’ve already seen with the near-total loss of the gros michel banana in the 1960s and the potato blight in 1845, this can be disastrous.