There’s a reason they call it the doomsday vault. Buried deep inside an Arctic mountain in Norway, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault was built to safeguard the world’s food inventory, no matter what Mother Nature or other forces throw at it. Earthquakes, war, floods, even the dreaded malfunctioning freezer. It doesn’t matter. Funded by the government of Norway, the US$9 million project was specifically designed to provide safe haven for nearly 1 million seed samples considered essential for human civilization.

“It’s an important insurance policy if things go wrong around the world—and they do,” says Marie Haga, executive director, Crop Trust, which curates and controls the vault along with the Nordic Genetic Resource Centre. “Crop diversity is too important to be left to uncertainty.”

Although the vault is built to last at least 200 years, the benefits aren’t limited to some distant dystopian future. The first seed retrieval from the vault happened just seven years after its completion. Conflicts in Syria had threatened a seed bank in Aleppo, so its research team withdrew seeds from the Svalbard vault to establish two new regional seed banks in Lebanon and Morocco.

Al­most 1 million

Seed samples housed

>6,000

Species housed

243

Countries participating

7

Continents represented

Sowing the Seeds

The idea behind a global seed vault began to take root in 2001 when the United Nations laid out rules for sharing and accessing plant genetic materials. By 2004, the government of Norway had studied the technical and political feasibility. A remote island in the Svalbard archipelago was chosen, about 620 miles (1,000 kilometers) from the North Pole. The mountainous region eliminated the risk of flooding, and the area’s permafrost would make it easier to maintain the vault’s frigid temperature requirements even if the facility’s cooling system failed and external temperatures rose. Plus, Svalbard Airport has the world’s northernmost commercial runway, so seed deliveries wouldn’t be an issue.

With a site selected, Statsbygg, a Norwegian government construction agency, began designing the vault. Topping the specs list was capacity to hold up to 4.5 million types of seeds. The team initially considered using an already carved-out, empty mine, but the option posed potential risks such as unsafe residual hydrocarbon gases and the chance of leftover coal catching fire. Instead the team did its own digging, creating a 146-meter (479-foot) access tunnel leading 120 meters (394 feet) inside a mountain to three separate vaults, each about 27 meters (89 feet) long.

-18° (-0.4° F)

Vault temperature

4.5 million

Varieties of crops it can hold at full capacity

500

Seeds of each variety

2.5 billion

Total seeds it can hold

With construction underway, a crew set out to collect one copy of every type of seed, crisscrossing the globe to make their case. It was a simple but urgent message: Share your seeds and save the world. The team started with larger gene banks and used that buy-in to persuade smaller, local ones to join. To encourage participation by developing countries, the team paid for a portion of seed-shipping costs.

When it opened in February 2008, the vault contained 320,000 seed samples. Now housing nearly 1 million samples, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault holds the most diverse collection of crop seeds in the world. The quest for seeds remains a continuing mission.

And to ensure the seeds have a safe home, project leaders also had to make some changes to the vault itself.

The thick layer of frozen ground that surrounds the vault was supposed to keep the entry tunnel—and the rest of the facility—waterproof. But when the construction team tried to restore the mountain’s permafrost after the project’s end in 2008, warming temperatures wrought by climate change hampered refreezing. That later caused water leaks in the access tunnel, though the rooms storing the seeds remained dry. So in February 2018, the Norwegian government launched a US$12.7 million upgrade to build and seal a new access tunnel slated to be completed this year.