Jutting out from a bleak, frozen polar landscape is a strange building. Often called the “doomsday vault”, this mysterious center of scientific research promises to be humanity’s last hope in the face of a global catastrophe. With the ever-increasing threats of nuclear war, drought, and worldwide pandemics, scientists are desperately trying to safeguard our future, by any means necessary. Read on to get an inside look into what this “fail-safe” fortress is hiding.
Humanity’s Salvation Hiding in Plain Sight?
A triangular building appears to emerge straight out of the snow-capped mountains. The structure features a large glass mosaic ceiling that twinkles like a snowflake in the Arctic sun. The stark contrast between the dark building and the white landscape further highlights the bizarre mystery of this structure.
Yet behind the mystery are secrets that could affect the lives of many. Located on a frozen archipelago between Norway and the North Pole called Svalbard, this building could actually hold the key to sustaining human life in the event of a global threat, natural disaster, or global pandemic. What could the vault be holding?
Given how remote and inhospitable Svalbard is, it’s easy to understand why the island is not a place that most travelers would be familiar with. Known by biologists as a pristine natural habitat for a variety of polar wildlife, it is not uncommon to see reindeer grazing or polar bears stalking their next meal. In fact, in many areas, polar bears outnumber people.
This frigid landscape, which has inspired so many folktales with its beauty and mystery, is now at the center of an apocalyptic horror story. What secrets is this odd site holding, and is it the location of the so-called “doomsday vault”?
A Frozen World, Buzzing With Life
Beyond the jagged fjords and turquoise icy waters, Svalbard is also home to a growing network of scientists. Historically used as a center for whaling and fishing, it has now become a highly desirable hub for scientists. Dotted along the snowy landscape are a handful of scientifically significant research stations.
These stations, owned by a variety of countries, use this remote patch of land for vital scientific research. One of the most important science hubs is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. And within its highly protected walls and heavy ice-crusted doors is something more precious than oil, minerals, or money.
A Secret Worth More Than Gold
Often dubbed the “doomsday vault”, many wonder why this heavily-guarded structure exists, and how a mysterious building in the tundra will save humanity if an apocalyptic event should occur. The answer is incredible: this frozen fortress holds close to one million different seeds from around the world.
Known as a seed vault, this protective hideaway aims to collect, and store, as many seeds as possible from a variety of plants, including both wild and domesticated species. With so many more seemingly valuable objects they could be stashing there, many people are wondering: why is this snowy lair fiercely guarding what is essentially just a cache of tiny seeds?
An Agricultural Plan B
Erected in 2006, the building houses an unbelievably extensive collection of seeds and other genetic resources. Since receiving its first deposit in 2008, this continuously growing database helps promote agricultural biodiversity and preserve existing seeds. Owned by the Norwegian government, the seed safe house offers a backup seed sampling of the world’s most important agriculture.
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is managed by three parties: the Norwegian Ministry of Agriculture and Food, as well as two nonprofits, Nordgen and the Crop Trust. Together, these three bodies help the seed vault continue collecting and adding to its store of agricultural material from around the world. And that’s not the only thing this mysterious edifice is hiding.
An Edible Trip Through History
According to one of the vault’s managing bodies, Crop Trust, the fortified unit holds not just a sampling of today’s important crops, but something far more expansive: “13,000 years of agricultural history”. With samples sourced from far-flung places such as Peru to Australia, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is certainly a fascinating building.
The vault’s managers focus on collecting the seeds of edible plants that will be able to feed the world. Considered to be the “plan B” should something happen to other existing seed banks, the seeds in this collection will hopefully be able to restore vital crops and agriculture in case of emergency. But how does this supposed “doomsday vault” work?
A “Fail-Safe” Fortress
Behind heavy steel doors, the secrets of this underground agricultural haven have finally been revealed. The “fail-safe” home to humanity’s vital food sources is a complex maze of secure engineering. Using forward-thinking engineering, the building was carefully designed to anticipate disasters, whether manmade or natural.
The stark triangular building popping out of the mountainside serves as the entrance to the vault, and the beginning of an intricate underground world. The opening leads to a hall, then to a large tunnel used to transport the seeds. From this tunnel appears a main chamber, then three vault rooms, of which only one contains actual seeds. And transporting this precious cargo all the way to Svalbard is a feat in and of itself.
An Average Day At the “Doomsday Vault”
For employees, receiving new seed shipments can be an especially memorable experience. Before the seeds make their way to the storage facility in the doomsday vault, they are stored in a nearby town named Longyearbyen. The boxes then undergo a thorough security scan in order to make sure the boxes contain only seeds.
The boxes of seed deposits are considered property of the depositors. Because of that, vault employees never open them. Once they reach the seed vault, they are rolled down a tunnel and put into a seed storage room. This giant room is filled with hundreds of other boxes, also filled with seeds. The question is, are these security checks enough to keep this massive collection safe?
Safety, At Any Cost
Not only was this “doomsday vault” designed for function. Its engineers have worked hard to keep this tiny treasure trove of seeds safe under any circumstances. With steel-reinforced concrete doors, several feet thick, and blast-proof doors, no expenses were spared in the design of the vault’s safety features.
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault was built to withstand nuclear war, explosions, natural disasters, and other catastrophes. For scientists and government officials tasked with managing the vault, the security of the seeds is of utmost importance. While it obviously isn’t open to the public, several media outlets have been granted access. Now, they are sharing the behind the scenes information — for the first time.
Remote, For A Reason
The vault’s intricate design is not the only thing keeping the precious seeds safe. The location of the vault was also intentionally chosen for both safety and functionality. Located within a mountain, with permafrost, the seeds are naturally kept at the perfect cool temperature to keep them preserved, even if the power goes down.
In addition to the mountain serving as a giant refrigerator, the remoteness of the vault’s location is also keeping it safe. Located far from any arena of conflict, the area is safe from the civil unrest that plagues the sites of other seed banks. This fact is key — because the location of other, similar projects has proven disastrous.
According to the director of the Crop Trust, “big and small doomsdays” are happening across the globe, every day. With the constant threat of war, civil strife, and a variety of environmental threats across a number of societies, many vital samples of genetic material are disappearing.
But what happens when a country, tasked with managing their own seed bank, finds itself in the midst of its own apocalyptic maelstrom? For one Middle Eastern country, civil unrest would not just rattle its society and ravage its population. Few people around the world realized the way the conflict would have a devastating effect on centuries of research.
The Tiniest Victims Of War
In 2011, the country of Syria was plunged into a devastating civil war that continues to this day. Amid the human toll, another victim emerged: the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, also known as ICARDA. With increasing global temperatures, and the creeping desertification of many countries, Syria’s ICARDA was once a center for preserving hardy, heat-resistant crops.
Unfortunately, the chaos of the region threatened the center. Scientists running the seed bank near the city of Aleppo were forced to pack up their vital seed collection. They raced to transfer them to Beirut, Lebanon, and then all the way north to Svalbard. While manmade catastrophes, such as war, threaten seed banks across the world, what happens when problems arise from the Earth itself?
With over six thousand samples from more than 249 places across the world, the creation of the seed vault is intended to protect the diversity of plant species and protect plant life from a variety of environmental threats. Unfortunately, it seems that Mother Nature sometimes has different plans.
In 2006, a powerful Category 4 typhoon decimated areas of the Philippines. One of the places hard hit was home to the nation’s national seed bank. In a flash, samples from 500 species of agricultural plants were lost in the muddy waters that pummeled the building that was supposed to safe-guard them. The traumatic event helped spark conversations about proper storage — and may have helped better the Svalbard seed facility. It was about to receive a most unique shipment.
The United Nations of Seeds
Hidden within the protective walls of the “doomsday vault” are more than a million tiny seeds, neatly tucked into vacuum-sealed packets or test tubes. These packages are stored in boxes according to country. From Colombian bean seeds to Italian pepper seeds, the vault represents a cornucopia of agricultural diversity.
The vault made headlines when it received a deposit from an indigenous community from Peru, and a deposit from the Cherokee Nation in the United States. Included were unique heirloom crops such as corn, squash, and beans. Here, seeds from countries immersed in decades of conflict all sit together. Countries or institutions are allowed to make a donation, as well as retrieve their samples later. And they have a way of preventing duplicates.
Safely Storing the Future
While countries and institutions are allowed to make seed deposits, they must go through local gene banks. These are places where genetic material can be safely stored. Specimens that can be preserved include seeds and even frozen cuttings from a plant. Using local gene banks as a primary resource ensures that the vault will not receive duplicates.
These locations provide a safety net for future generations. They house both domesticated and wild plant species. Having varieties of species can ensure that farmers will have more choices of food crops to grow in case their current crops suffer as a result of climate change, disease, or pests. With other seed banks in use, there’s something key that makes the Svalbard Global Seed Bank stand out from the rest.
Bigger, Better, Safer
What makes the “doomsday vault” in Svalbard different is the sheer size of the facility and the modern preservation tactics being used. While there are close to 2,000 seed banks across the globe, many of these storehouses are at risk of losing their genetic materials because of natural or manmade disasters.
Because of its large size, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault has the ability to house millions of varieties of crop. Each variety of crop generally contains about 500 seeds. That means more than two billion seeds can safely be stored in the polar vault! Even without reaching its true potential or capacity, it already houses the most diverse array of seeds on Earth. And nearby, something else was built to keep us safe in the face of disaster.
The Future is Frozen
Another industry that has realized the importance of having a “back-up plan” is the increasingly important data storage industry. Similar to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a safe storage unit has also been constructed on the icy island. Formerly used as a coal mine, this underground storage space has now become the Arctic World Archive.
The subterranean area will hold important data from countries around the world. The data will be converted from digital form to analog film by a Norwegian company called Piql, because analog film is more resistant. It will be placed in safe boxes in a heavily protected vault. Countries like Brazil and Mexico have already submitted culturally significant documents, and more countries are considering following suit. So who keeps supplying the database?
Keeping The Shelves Stocked
So where does the Svalbard Global Seed Vault get its extensive collection? The answer is quite surprising. While many samples come from institutions and national seed banks, some have more interesting backstories. Many of the seeds deposited in the vault came from vigilant “seed detectives”. They’ve donated their findings to local gene or seed banks.
Seeds came from the most random places, whether found in regular people’s backyards, or in neglected orchards. Some have even been passed down from generation to generation. With such a diverse catalog of samples, however, it’s important to understand the strategy behind how and in what quantities the facility collects.
Strength in Numbers
Though it’s constantly mentioned in discussions about addressing world hunger, crop diversity is often misunderstood. Many visitors to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault may wonder why the vault collects thousands of varieties of one crop, such as wheat, or hundreds of types of corn. Why wouldn’t just a few be sufficient?
The reason is that different species of crops may have different attributes, or resistance to heat or pests. Some varieties may fare better in hotter climates, or have a special tolerance towards certain insects. With global temperatures fluctuating, new environmental threats can easily wipe out less resistant crops. But if diversity is so important, why aren’t farmers varying their crops now?
The Illusion of Choice
Picture a potato. You probably imagined a round one with brown skin and white flesh. Few people know that there are actually more than 4,000 varieties of potatoes. Despite the thousands of varieties, only a handful or so are available in most supermarkets in the United States. One reason for this is monoculture, a cultivation process where the diversity of crops is reduced in order to focus on just one in a given area.
According to scientists, more than 75 percent of our agricultural diversity has been lost. Depending on feeding the world’s population with just a few crops can be a risky gamble. History has shown what could happen when countries count on just one variety of a crop — often with tragic consequences.
While the technology used in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is modern, the idea of having a safe place to house seeds is not. In fact, as far back as the late 1920s, a Russian agricultural scientist named Nikolai Vavilov started one of the most influential gene banks, the Pavlovsk Experimental Station, close to modern-day St. Petersburg, Russia.
Little did Vavilov know that his vault would be caught in the middle of a war zone during the German invasion and siege in World War II. As German soldiers stormed the science compound, Vavilov and other scientists kept their promise to save their seed collection at any cost. Despite being surrounded by edible seeds and plants, many of the scientists chose to starve instead of risking their huge seed supply. Yet even without the specter of war, don’t think crops are safe.
The Threat of Global Hunger Heats Up
Wars are far from the only threat to preserving biodiversity. As climate change increases temperatures around the world, access to food supplies is under threat. Natural disasters, such as fires, flooding, and drought, can compromise our ability to feed ourselves at any moment. Even more subtle changes, like increased salinity in soil, higher temperatures, and new pests can spell catastrophe.
By studying and maintaining a diverse collection of food crop species, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault can help develop more resilient plants. The seed vault can also be a safe place for developing nations to safely guard their biologically valuable specimens in the event of lack of funding or civil strife. Sadly, it looks like threats are creeping ever closer — even to Svalbard.
An Unexpected Turn
Sadly, climate change has not only affected developing nations. Countries close to the Arctic have suffered greatly thanks to rapidly rising temperatures. In 2017, warmer than usual temperatures caused the seed stronghold to suffer damage due to flooding. In an ironic turn of events, the “doomsday vault” sustained significant damage caused by melting permafrost.
When the seed vault was built, it was specifically carved into a mountain capped with permafrost. The idea was that the permanent layer of ice would provide a cost-effective, low-maintenance solution to keeping the seeds at their ideal frozen temperatures. Unfortunately, that melted permafrost quickly sent a torrent of water into the entrance of the vault. While the seeds remained safe, scientists wonder: how long before the entire storage house is in danger?
Skating On Thin Ice?
When news broke about the floodwaters that had breached the entrance of the supposedly “fail-safe” vault, the managing bodies in Svalbard knew they had to take action, and fast. The tunnel received new upgrades to better prepare it for future climate change.
The rock tunnel has been changed into a concrete hall. It will feature cooling pipes and frozen mats which will keep the passageway cool. While the original designers of the seed vault did not anticipate what would happen with the permafrost, they have had to make quick improvements in order to protect their precious stash of seeds. The future of agricultural diversity is at risk. How long can the facility hold out?
“Supposed To Last For Eternity…”
With the threat of rising temperatures, and other consequences of climate change, scientists worry about the future of the vault once labeled the “doomsday vault”. The vital organic matter the vault holds could be the only food supply if the planet were to undergo a worldwide emergency.
In the countless rows of boxes, each carefully labeled by country, lies the valuable DNA information needed to help develop new, more successful strains of important food crops. Described as the last resort, scientists now worry for the future of the seed bank. Sadly, the vault that was “supposed to last for eternity” looks to be reaching the end of its line.
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