doomsday seed vault

Why Does Humanity Have a Doomsday Seed Vault?

Read Time: 2 minutes

Lying deep within a mountain on Norway’s Svalbard archipelago in Spitsbergen is the Doomsday Seed Vault. The entrance to the building juts out of the mountain inconspicuously and certainly doesn’t resemble a high-tech facility, with the exception of a light structure located at the top of the entrance.

The remote facility is as close to the North Pole as possible and is the creation of The Global Crop Diversity Trust (Crop Trust) and the Nordic Gene Bank (NordGen), in cooperation with the Norwegian government. It cost $9 million to build the seed vault, but it may be humanity’s last hope to preserve its global crop supply and agricultural history.

Why We Need a Doomsday Seed Vault

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault currently holds more than 930,000 varieties of seeds, including some ancient seeds not found anywhere else. That is only a small portion of what the vault is capable of holding. It has the capacity to house 4.5 million varieties of seeds.

This sounds like a large volume, but the goal of the Svalbard vault is to preserve the world’s crops in seed form in the event of natural disasters, major catastrophes and wars. Not only that, but the Doomsday Vault also houses seeds no longer circulating in a large part of the world.

Crops are grown today with greater agriculture technological advances but offer less biodiversity. This increases the risk of a disease or pest infestation wiping out an entire crop. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault should preserve the world’s crops and oldest seed varieties for hundreds of years.

Why Global Gene Banks Aren’t Enough

Events such as flooding can devastate a country’s food supply, such as in the Philippines after its 2015 hurricane. The global seed banks, also known as gene banks, are vulnerable to attacks during wars, as was the case with the destruction of the gene banks in Afghanistan and Iraq.

There are more than 1,700 seed vaults around the world, and as many as 233 countries deposit samples into the backup Doomsday Vault, since it sits in a remote region far away from the effects of war and terrorism.

Protecting the World’s Food Supply

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault features an entrance well above sea level and relies on permafrost to protect the facility. Once inside, a 430-foot concrete tunnel ends with a chamber composing of three seed vaults. Currently, the facility is using the middle vault to house the seeds. Each vault measures 90-by-30-by-16 feet. The seeds are vacuum-sealed in packets or test tubes and frozen in sub-zero temperatures in black boxes.

Recently, the permafrost melted slightly and endangered the seed vault’s contents. The water leaked into the entrance to the tunnel and refroze. Researchers are making improvements to keep events like this from damaging the contents of the vault, including improving the outer tunnel and engineering the power source so the facility can run without power and maintain its constant temperature.

Awakening the World’s Oldest Seeds

The Svalbard Global Seed Bank has already experienced its first withdrawal by a country. The city of Aleppo in Syria once housed the gene bank at the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA). The ongoing civil war destroyed the facility.

ICARDA opened new facilities in both Lebanon and Morocco and requested the seed samples from the Doomsday Seed Vault. Since the seeds hold DNA traits that are useful for adaptability, ICARDA planted, collected and later processed the plants with samples sent back to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.

As more countries make deposits and withdraw when urgently needed, scientists can manipulate the DNA to encourage the crops to repel pests and boost immunity.

Humanity’s Hope

In a world embroiled in constant wars and natural disasters, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is flourishing as countries deposit native seeds into the vault. This international cooperation comes from the Multilateral System and/or under Article 15 of the International Treaty. Only a country that deposits its seeds can withdraw and open the black box.

Countries facing devastation from multiple sources can rely on the Doomsday Seed Vault to help them recover their food supply.

Perhaps the international cooperation regarding the Svalbard Global Seed Vault will spill over into other global issues, requiring countries to unite to save humankind.

Featured Image released to the public domain curtesy of  NordGen/Dag Terje Filip Endresen

Category: Environment

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Article by: Megan Ray Nichols

Megan Ray Nichols is a freelance science writer and science enthusiast. Her favorite subjects include astronomy and the environment. She encourages discussions in these fields. Megan is also a regular contributor to Datafloq, The Energy Collective, and David Renke's World of Space. When she isn't writing, Megan loves watching movies, hiking and stargazing. Love what you're reading on Schooled By Science? Don't forget to subscribe today!