Deep within the Arctic Circle, on the frozen island of Spitsbergen in the Norwegian Svalbard archipelago, is a giant vault.
It’s something you’d half expect to fi nd in a Bond movie: set 120 metres (394 feet) inside a mountain, it’s the site of an old coal mine and boasts some formidable security features that include reinforced concrete walls, dual blast-proof doors, motion sensors and airlocks.
Just 1,300 kilometres (808 miles) from the North Pole, the island’s inhospitable climate and treacherous terrain make monitoring human activity in the area relatively easy.
The 1,750 banks from around the world that have made deposits to this vault can sleep easy knowing their investments are secure. But this is no safe house for cash or gold, nor is this a fi nancial institution of any kind – it is a giant repository for the world’s precious seed crops.
The project is an effort on the part of several multinational corporations and governments to protect future crop diversity. This includes the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation along with a conglomerate of corporations with agricultural interests called the Global Crop Diversity Trust, and the Ministry of Agriculture and Food on behalf of the Norwegian government.
Svalbard is an ideal choice for the vault’s location, making it a kind of fail-safe, should worldwide seed banks fail. The location may be remote, but it has good infrastructure and a ready supply of coal to power the facility.
The sandstone the vault is set into is low in radiation and stable, plus it’s very cold and dry, protecting the seeds even if the refrigeration units were to fail. So, in the event of largescale regional or global crises, our world’s diverse produce is securely backed up.
Preserving our food future
Duplicate samples of seeds from national seed banks are stored in sealed aluminium bags that exclude moisture, then shelved in itemised containers, the contents of which are recorded and held in a database maintained by the Norwegian authorities.
The bedrock that surrounds the vault is a temperature of minusthree degrees Celsius (27 degrees Fahrenheit), although the facility is kept even colder by refrigeration units that chill the seeds to minus-18 degrees Celsius (minus-0.4 degrees Fahrenheit).
The island of Spitsbergen is tectonically inactive and even if the ice caps melted, the site lies high enough to remain above sea level. Under these conditions, seeds will remain viable for hundreds or even thousands of years.