The Svalbard Global Seed Vault officially opened Feb. 26, 2008, when it received its first shipment of 100 million seeds, originating from more than 100 different nations. In March 2010, its collection will top 500,000, and it will become the most diverse collection of food crop seeds anywhere on Earth.
Known as the "doomsday" seed vault, it is a global insurance policy, ensuring that a diverse variety of food crops survive threats such as disease, pests, droughts and other natural disasters, and global warming.
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault will protect unique varieties of food staples such as eggplant, lettuce, barley, potato, maize, rice, wheat, cowpea and sorghum. The latest shipments also include varieties familiar to Americans: 400 samples from the Seed Savers Exchange in the U.S., an Iowa-based nonprofit group that is preserving rare garden species, many of them brought to North America by immigrants from Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Among them: the German Pink tomato, a rare hardy sweet variety transported to Iowa in 1883 by a Bavarian immigrant who is the grandfather of one of the co-founders of the Seed Savers Exchange.
Established by Norway as "a service to the world," it is the most comprehensive and diverse collection of seeds on Earth.
Besides preserving unique varieties of crops threatened with eradication, the seeds stored will be available should a natural or man-made catastrophe necessitate restarting agricultural production on a regional, or even global scale.
Situated on a remote island in Norway's Svalbard archipelago, the Global Seed Vault sits at the end of a 410-foot tunnel dug into Arctic permafrost. Even if the locally sourced electricity fails, conditions should maintain temperatures under zero degrees (F), cold and dry enough for some seeds to remain viable for 1,700 years (wheat) to 20,000 years (sorghum).
Even under the worst global warming scenarios envisioned the vault would remain frozen for 200 years. The facility also is secured with four heavy steel doors, each with separate locks requiring varying levels of security clearance to unlock.
Construction began in July 2006 on the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Originally scheduled for completion in September 2007, the first seeds were delivered in February 2008.
The remote location, harsh conditions and unique engineering were all challenges for builders. For nearly four months every year, the region is completely dark.
Construction of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault took more than a year and a half, and was originally projected to cost $4.8 million.
The natural insulation offered by the permafrost and long winter night will help keep the seeds stored at about -0.4 degrees (F).
The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources, which created a framework for securing the world's plant biodiversity, made the Svalbard Global Seed Vault possible. The facility, with its 410-foot tunnel to the vault, is secured with four heavy steel doors, each with separate locks requiring varying levels of security clearance to unlock.
The ventilation system at the Svalbard Global 'Doomsday' Seed Vault runs on a single 10-kilowatt condenser, and keeps seeds stored below zero degrees (F). Electronic transmitters linked to a satellite system will monitor temperature and other conditions, and communicate the information to managers at the Nordic Gene Bank in Longyearbyen. If the electricity fails, the underground Arctic conditions would sustain below-freezing temperatures, thereby keeping seeds dormant.
Beyond the facility's high-tech security, the "ultimate safety net for the world's seeds" is protected by its location. Svalbard is a group of islands more than 600 miles north of mainland Norway.
The largest town near the Global Seed Vault is Longyearbyen (pop. 1,800), the world's northernmost town with more than 1,000 residents. The airport is the northernmost point in the world serviced by scheduled flights.
Artist Dyveke Sanne and KORO, a Norwegian art agency, designed a steel roof with prisms and mirrors designed to reflect polar light in the summer. During the long, dark winter months, a network of 200 fiber-optic cables will emit a muted greenish-turquoise and white light, reminiscent of the Northern Lights.
The apocalyptic scenario envisioned by the Svalbard Global "Doomsday" Seed Vault is buoyed by the ingenuity and inventiveness that is demonstrated by its design and construction. With luck, the seeds collected in the vault will never be needed to restart world agriculture after a catastrophic loss. If the need should arise, the vault is equipped to store 4.5 million varieties (2 billion seeds) safely for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.