What It’s Like Inside The “Doomsday Vault”

The world is always heading in an unknown direction, so do you think we should be prepared for the worst-case scenario? Well, it won’t hurt if we are ready for disastrous conditions, even though we remain focused on positivity.

In case of a nuclear war, climate change, or any sort of disaster, there is a “doomsday” vault hidden approximately 400 feet deep inside a mountain on a remote island between mainland Norway and the North Pole!

Agricultural practices have changed dramatically in the last several decades, with technological advances allowing large-scale crop production. Yet, even though this boosted the yields, biodiversity has significantly decreased.

For instance, the U.S. has lost over 90% of its fruit and vegetable varieties since the 1900s. Therefore, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault stores valuable seeds from crops all over the world.

The “father” of the vault, and a former executive director of the international nonprofit organization Crop Trust, Cary Fowler, explains that it is actually envisioned as a safety deposit box.

Therefore, its point is not for apocalyptic scenarios, but it is a back-up drive:

“People will say, ‘how can you have enough seeds up there?’ That’s not the point, it’s not for planting. This is really a genetic resource for plant breeding.”

Svalbard is the northernmost place in the world that still has scheduled flights. It is over 400 feet above sea level, and there’s little moisture in the air.

The vault is not open to the public, and is buried in permafrost, so it could stay frozen at least 200 years, even if the power were to go out.

It stores seeds from over 60 institutions and almost every country in the world, collected from over 1,700 global gene banks that store seed samples from all the crops native to their area.

Yet, according to Crop Trust, “ many of these are vulnerable, exposed not only to natural catastrophes and war but also to avoidable disasters, such as lack of funding or poor management, “, adding that “the loss of a crop variety is as irreversible as the extinction of a dinosaur, animal or any form of life.”

Brian Lainoff, lead partnerships coordinator of the Crop Trust, explains that the vault stores “13,000 years of agricultural history.”

In case a disaster destroys the samples at the bank, Svalbard sends backups to ensure the safety of the genetic diversity of crops.

When samples arrive at Svalbard, the boxes are scanned with X-rays to make sure that they have nothing but seeds inside. The seeds arrive sealed in foil and are kept inside sealed boxes.

All public buildings in Norway are legally obliged to have art, so the rooftop and part of the facade of the building is a work of art with a light installation by Dyveke Sanne.

The vault is secured with five doors with coded locks. Also, the polar bears, which outnumber people on the island, are an extra “layer of security.”

To keep the sealed seeds viable for such a long time, the temperature inside is kept to -18 degrees Celsius.

Svalbard opened in 2008, and so far, it has collected over 983,500 samples, each of them containing 500 seeds.

Yet, the three main rooms of the vault can store 4.5 million samples or over 2 billion seeds.

In 2015, the ICARDA Seed Bank in Syria withdrew samples from the vault to restore its seed bank, as it was damaged by war. Fowler said that this illustrated the reason why the vault was built in the first place, and ” loss of that collection would be irreplaceable”, and the place served “as an insurance policy.”

While it was not initially his intention, he eventually decided to write a book and document all the events related to the seed vault, “Seeds On Ice: Svalbard and the Global Seed Vault”.

The book involves photos taken by photographers Mari Tefre and Jim Richardson, and the reveal the seed bank along the way, from the initial design sketches, the construction process, and even the Svalbard landscape.

Fowler wrote:

“We don’t need to experience apocalypse in order for the Seed Vault to be useful and to repay its costs many times over. We … were not anticipating the end of the world. … We were pragmatists. We wanted to address a problem we were already experiencing: the loss of diversity in individual gene-banks.”