Tech

Storing the Future: The Svalbard Global Seed Vault

It's Always Good to Keep Backups

As Spongebob Squarepants might say, the end is coming. Well, maybe.

In 2012, with the apparent end of the Mayan long count calendar, many considered the possibility a real and present one. That’s why, according to ABC News, thousands sought to head underground to wait out the passing storm of whatever it might have been. An asteroid? Planet X? Some kind of, let’s call it, New Vegas-esque scenario?

While that year has come and gone (and gone – it’s been well over a decade now), the threat of a world-ending catastrophe will always loom. It’s happened before. For example, we can look back to the Chicxulub impactor, the asteroid that ended the reign of the dinosaurs. Or even the 1783 Laki eruption, that lasted about eight months and caused worldwide crop failures. End of the world? No, but it sure caused some problems. Doomsday is a spectrum, and you never know what might happen next!

So what then?

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is a compound over on Spitsbergen, an island in the Arctic Svalbard archipelago (check it out on Google Maps). The entrance to the vault looks a little like a mix between a desktop PC and a star destroyer. Inside you’ll find millions of frozen seeds, kept safe from the elements and, presumably, any future catastrophic events.

Depending on how the world might end, at least future humans will have access to thousands of years of agricultural history.

The Seed Vault started out as a humble abandoned coal mine, where the Nordic Gene Bank began storing seeds in 1984. However, the Vault as it appears today opened on February 26, 2008, and now stores over one million seed samples representing over 6,000 species, gathered from countries all over the world.

The above video is a 360 degree tour inside the Svalbard Seed Vault.

The entrance is a bit tinier than it appears in pictures! Once inside, you enter a long tunnel built for trolleys to carry the seeds. The main chamber, constructed deep within a sandstone mountain, consists of three vault rooms housing boxes of frozen seeds. The seeds are kept inside at around −18 °C. They’re mostly left alone, too, as no staff are stationed there permanently.

Things haven’t all gone completely smoothly for the Seed Vault, however.

Water breached its entrance back in 2016, although it only reached about 50 feet inside before freezing solid. This led to further improvements to fortify the entrance and waterproof the tunnels. Such things have happened to other vaults in the past, such as a genebank in the Philippines that suffered both flooding and a fire, as well as vaults in the Middle East that have unfortunately been lost.

While it’s easy to look at the Seed Vault as a “doomsday bunker,” that’s not exactly what it’s meant for. In truth, its actual goal is to act as a kind of backup, or as the Crop Trust website states, “conserving and making crop diversity available for use globally.” Crop diversity is important for developing new varieties and preventing plant species from facing extinction, as well as preventing situations like the Irish Potato Famine (in that it’s safer to rely on more than a single crop, in the event that one fails).

It makes sense, then, that the Seed Vault looks like a fancy hard drive! It’s a backup of our world’s seeds, at this point in time. And it’s always good to have backups.

A potted sprout next to the words Gardening at the End of the World

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Rob Schwarz

Writer, blogger, and part-time peddler of mysterious tales. Editor-in-chief of Stranger Dimensions.