Svalbard Global Seed Vault

There is a small island off the coast of Norway, called Spitsbergen, just 810 miles from the North Pole.  Temperatures there reach almost zero in the winter.  There are no roads to connect the various settlements near the town of Longyearbyen.  You might not know there was anything out there at all.  Yet, there is something more precious than possibly anything else on Earth.

Spitsbergen, Norway, summer

Spitsbergen, Norway, in the summertime.
Image: Shutterstock

There lies the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.  It contains samples of all the various types of seeds from all over the world.  Started by “conservationist Cary Fowler in association with the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR),” the facility is important for the fate of our future.

All the seeds are kept in an underground vault (temperature zero degrees Fahrenheit) and stored in four-ply envelopes.  They are shelved on plastic containers on metal racks.  The cold helps delay the seeds from decay.

Though there are other seed banks around the world, this one is the most complete and important.  We need these seeds in case of a global catastrophe in which many species are wiped out.  Also, it is an insurance policy in case the other seed banks are destroyed or depleted.

The vault is managed by a triad of the Norwegian government, the Global Crop Diversity Trust and the Nordic Geneti Resource Center, or NordGen.

The vault’s construction, which cost about $9 million, began in 1984 at the site of an old, abandoned coal mine.  It was funded entirely by Norway and the Global Crop Diversity Trust.  However, organizations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and others have contributed.  It costs nothing to store seeds at the vault.

You can’t just walk in and ask to take seeds out, though.  The place operates like a bank with safe deposit boxes.  The vault owns the boxes, but the contributors own the contents.  So, whichever government deposits seeds owns those actual seeds.  They cannot be shared with other owners unless otherwise specified.  Anyone else wanting access to the seeds must request them from the depositing “genebanks.”

This year, in March of 2013, the number of seeds deposited at the vault increased to 770,000.