Hollywood has produced plenty of doomsday films, usually with a scientist-hero concocting some scheme to prevent an existential disaster from destroying the human race. In reality, our survival is based on something much more elemental: seeds.
The Global Seed Vault on Svalbard is a secure storage facility that holds the largest, most diverse collection of food crop seeds on earth. Located in an abandoned coal mine deep within a mountain beneath the permafrost, the vault was “built to stand the test of time ” and survive every possible natural or human-made catastrophe.
Officially opened in 2008, the Global Seed Vault holds around a million packets of seeds for crops and plants from nearly every country on earth. These seed samples—ranging from African cowpea and Asian rice to European eggplant and South American potato—are duplicates of those held in the more than 1,700 gene banks around the world, many of which are susceptible to weather, natural disasters, war, and mismanagement. The Svalbard vault was established as the “final back up” to ensure our food supply survives against any such vulnerability.
Seeds are stored within custom-made foil packages inside sealed boxes at on optimal -0.4 degrees Fahrenheit. Depositing countries own and control access to the contents, and are the only ones who may make withdrawals, such as Syria did in 2015 to replace seeds lost at a war-ravaged gene bank.
While the Global Seed Vault was designed as a fail-safe against the greatest imaginable calamities, it clearly wasn’t up to one: the challenge of global warming. Higher than usual temperatures on Spitsbergen this past spring caused the permafrost to melt, flooding the seed bank. Fortunately, the water only seeped into the entrance of the rock vault’s tunnel, never reaching its priceless deposits. Since then, the facility has been waterproofed and pumps installed to preserve the seeds, and thus humankind itself.