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Svalbard Global Seed Vault

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is one of Spitsbergen’s most famous infrastructure facilities. It is located above the airport, about 130 metres above sea level on the slope of the mountain Platåberget. The idea is to store seed samples of species which are important for agriculture and food supplies from countries all over the world. In case the regional diversity of wheat, rice or any other food plant is destroyed by war, climate change or natural disaster, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault holds a backup. This may sound rather far-fetched, but the concept was already applied in practice when samples were retrieved to replace a stock in Syria. Because of this background, the vault is often referred to as the ‘Doomsday Vault’.

The samples in Longyearbyen are only released when stocks elsewhere are not available anymore. Hence, it is a backup for the backups.

The concept came up in the early 1980s, when a nuclear war seemed to be a real threat. The first vault in Spitsbergen was established in 1984 in a shut down coalmine (mine 3, not far from today’s seed vault). The Svalbard Global Seed Vault which is in use now is not in an old coal mine, but in a purpose-built tunnel in solid sandstone. The immediate presence of coal was deemed unsuitable because of methane exhalations which inevitably come with coal layers. The tunnel penetrates 125 metres into the mountain. The natural permafrost is supposed to cool the seeds down sufficiently for a long time even in case the cooling systems should fail completely.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault was funded by the Norwegian government and opened in February 2008. Since then, it has constantly attracted considerable worldwide public and media attention. The seed samples remain property of the original sender. Hence, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is in a way nothing but an extremely upmarket, high-security cold storage facility. Hundred thousands of samples are now stored there, mainly sent in by international research institutions. The samples are stored in 3 security chambers with high storage racks. They come from countries on all continents (except Antarctica, obviously), including North Korea.

New samples are delivered several times a years. On such occasions, the Nordic Genetic Resource Centre (NordGen) will usually give journalists the opportunity to visit the vault.

The panoramas on this website were taken during such a media visit. The vault is closed to the public, there are no opportunities for visits.

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last modification: 2018-09-12 · copyright: Rolf Stange
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