Way up north in the remote Arctic Svalbard archipelago, shrouded in permafrost and tucked 427 feet into a mountain, lies the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Located on the Norwegian Island of Spitsbergen, this futuristic facility safeguards over 850,00 seed copies from all over the planet in case of a global catastrophe. Created as a way to preserve biodiversity of the planet, the vault contains duplicate samples of essential seed varieties that are held in gene banks around the world.
Managed by the Norwegian government, the Global Crop Diversity Trust (GCDT), and the Nordic Genetic Resource Center, the project has been funded primarily by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The seed bank sits within a super-secure mountain crypt. From all over the world, seeds are sent to vault, placed within special packets and then heat sealed for long-term storage. Its location in Spitsbergen was specifically chosen as an ideal location–it’s high enough above sea level that the site will remain dry even if the ice caps do melt.
Both the entryway and length of exposed roof of the vault have actually been transformed into a work of art. The structure is visible from high in the sky, as its exterior is covered in prisms, mirrors, and reflective steel that work to catch polar light in the summer, while a network of optic cables light up the facility in a wash of turquoise and white light in the winter. This illuminating decoration is thanks to Norwegian legislation that insists construction projects that exceed a certain cost feature artwork. This fantastic facility “ensures that, one day, all of humanity’s existing food crop varieties would be safely protected,” explains Cary Fowler, executive director of the GCDT. With countries all over the world participating, this project showcases the ability of the world to transcend politics and come together in unity over a vital subject such as food security.
UPDATE: There is debate revolving around any topic that has as wide-reaching implications as one such as this. Specifically, acknowledgements should be made that there are theories that link the Svalbard Seed Vault and the GCDT with multinational seed companies around the world.
When implementing off-site storage as an approach to crop diversity conservation, it is argued that it lulls the public into a false sense of security. When taken in a global context in which a handful of corporations dominate plant breeding and seed control, this is an understandable concern. So while seed banks such as Svalbard can be seen as valid preliminary back-up options, focus should be placed on protecting present-day worldwide crop diversity as opposed to seed bank storage alone. Protection of biodiversity through investment in the efforts of local farms and markets, while de-emphasizing corporate-controlled global markets should be the number one priority.
All images via SmilePlanet, unless otherwise stated.