Seed vault | Norway

“Frozen, for good”

Plant seeds from all over the world are stored in Norwegian permafrost. Biologist Åsmund Asdal explains how important these seeds are for our future. A conversation

On a snow-covered mountain in Spitsbergen, there is a shiny gold door that leads into the mountain via an entrance.

The entrance to the Svalbard Seed Vault

Mr. Asdal, you coordinate the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, the biggest seed vault on earth. What is it for?

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is a seed storage facility for conserving duplicates of seed samples that are conserved in gene banks all over the world. It’s important that we do not lose this material. Agriculture hinges on having yield-increasing varieties. Crop breeders are always producing new varieties that can withstand new pests or a drier climate as the globe warms.

Once these improved seeds come to market, farmers start to use them and abandon older varieties. If no one conserves them, they are at risk of vanishing. We need to preserve seed varieties for future food production and food supplies.

What kind of seeds are stored there?

We store more than 1.1 million seed samples from more than 5,000 different species of crop seeds related to agriculture. Many samples come from crops like wheat, maize, rice and so on. Some less used crops have only a few samples. By now, the Global Seed Vault covers more or less all the genetic diversity of crops worldwide.

The seed vault is located deep under the earth of a mountain in Svalbard, in the north of Norway. Why exactly at that location?

It's important that seeds are conserved frozen. The seed vault is artificially cooled down to -18 degrees Celsius, the temperature used for conserving seeds long term. The permafrost in the mountains of Svalbard means that if the cooling system fails, the seeds will remain. Also, it was important that the Global Seed Vault is managed by Norway, a nation which is trusted by countries all around the world.

There is widespread confidence that Norway will be a good caretaker of the seeds. Meanwhile, Svalbard has been storing seeds from the Nordic countries for more than 30 years. When the seed vault opened in 2008, it was quite easily accessible. Svalbard is municipality, with an airport close to the vault, power supplies, and a police station. It has all the logistics to easily transport the seeds.

Is climate change and global warming likely to affect the permafrost and therefore the safety of the vault?

Climate change is posing a threat to the permafrost, yes. Scenarios suggest that we might lose the permafrost in Svalbard in 80 or 100 years from now. That's, of course, a disaster. In recent years, the melting permafrost meant that water trickled into the entrance tunnel of the seat vault.

We had to boost security and increase a new watertight entrance tunnel in 2018. But the artificial cooling systems mean that climate change does not pose a threat to the safety of the seed vault itself. As long as we have electricity, the seeds will be safe. 

Could you take us on a virtual tour through the seed vault?

From the outside, you don’t see so much, it’s a simple concrete building. This door leads to watertight tunnel of more than 100 meters leading down into the mountain. Next comes a big hall that we call The Cathedral. It’s a nice place with great acoustics – I’ve dreamt of playing a saxophone in there! From there, three doors lead to storage halls which can each store 1.5 million seeds.

In total we have space for 4.5 million samples, enough for the coming 100 years. Inside, it is far from spectacular, just a regular storage hall lined with shelves. At first glance it looks ordinary. But when you know what's inside all these boxes – and all the work involved by people from every corner of the world – it's quite amazing.

Who decides which seeds are stored there?

The vault offers to store seeds, free of charge, but these seeds have to be already stored in a long-term gene bank. Some countries have their own centralised national gene banks, while many countries have several gene banks. All of them are invited to send us their seeds.

That said, the gene bank always confirms that their genetic resources are available for humanity, for public breeding and research. That’s one reason why we do not have genetically modified seeds in Svalbard. Genetically modified seeds are mostly patented and are thus not available for the general public good. 

How do the seeds reach Svalbard?

Three times a year, we receive seeds: in February, May and October. I tell the gene banks to dry the seeds properly, which is essential to keep them alive for a long time. When they are dried they are put in aluminum water-proof envelopes, sealed and placed into standard size boxes to fit our seed vault shelves. Then the seed boxes are sent to Svalbard.

I receive them, first checking at the airport that there is nothing but seeds in the boxes. Next I bring them into the seat vault, put them on the shelves, take a photo and send a confirmation email to the deposit of gene bank, thanking them for their cooperation. I love that part!

How is it possible to retrieve seeds from the vault – and did it already happen?

One thing is important to know: the seeds in our vault are the property of the depositing gene bank. We do net send them to anyone else. In 2015 a gene bank was forced to retrieve their seeds. The International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA) had their headquarters, including its seed bank, in Aleppo, Syria.

During the Syrian war, the gene bank in Aleppo was inaccessible, its staff had to flee and the seed bank was out of action. Luckily they had deposited their seeds in Svalbard and were able to retrieve copies of their seeds. Since then, the organisation has established new gene banks in Lebanon and Morocco, where they store the samples we sent them. 

In the media, the Global Seed Vault is sometimes referred to with dramatic phrases, such as “doomsday vault”. What do you think about such terms?

I try to avoid the term doomsday vault, because the seed vault is actually more an active part of a global safety system for conserving seeds. Most probably, seed vaults will not function for a very remote doomsday some 1,000 years from now.

However, I myself like the term “Noah's Ark” for the seed vault. In case a seed bank anywhere in the world is destroyed, the seeds are kept safe in the Noah’s Arc of Svalbard. 

Interview by Gundula Haage