37 Facts: Svalbard International Seed Vault [INFOGRAPHIC]

Throughout the world, there are 1,700 gene banks that house food crops for safekeeping.

Unfortunately, the integrity of the supply can be affected by something as avoidable as a freezer not being in correct operation.

Crop would be ruined and this is not something that can be changed. In addition, there are natural disasters and manmade catastrophes (such as war) that could also impact the crops. This was recognized and the general consensus was that the world’s food banks are vulnerable and a viable safety solution was required. 

Located Half way between Norway and the North Pole, this establishment is constructed to withstand the test of time and resist the unpredictable. Storing duplicates of the world’s crop collections, the Seeds in the Seed Vault may only be accessed when the original seed collections have been lost for any reason. 

Table of Contents
Infographic What is a gene bank?
Quick Facts Climate Change
Structure of the Svalbard Seed Vault Why Svalbard?

A fantastic idea and construction that allows for peace of mind should the worst happen, you’re probably intrigued as to how all this happens. We will get into more detail shortly, but first the below infographic illustrates the various attributes and complexities that encapsulate this magnificent facility.

With an enormous capacity, the Seed Vault will be able to store 4.5 million various samples. Each one will contain roughly 500 seeds which all adds up to a total of 2.25 billion seeds! The result is that every unique seed sample spread across the various gene banks across the world will be housed at the Seed Vault. But that’s not all, in fact the structure will have the ability to expand upon what it already has and store plenty of new samples in the future. When in full use, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault represents the world’s largest collection of seeds. 

Let’s expand and develop on what a gene bank actually is.

In brief, it’s a facility for maintaining crop diversity in the form of seeds, stored and conserved in a frozen state.

The ideal temperature is between minus 10 and minus 20 degrees Celsius. Each different type of seed is stored in its own container. Living plants or parts of plants may also be contained, as sometimes crop cannot be stored in seed form.

The major sites are found in the following countries; China, Russia, Japan, India, S. Korea, Germany and Canada. In addition there are gene banks with an international profile, especially those that are operated by the Centers of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

Approximately 6,5 million seeds sample are stored in gene banks today. Only about 1-2 million of these are estimated to be distinct.

Plant breeders and researchers are the major users of gene banks. The diversity stored in the gene banks is the raw material for plant breeding and for basic biological research. Several thousand samples are distributed annually for such purposes.

Gene banks are under threat due to lack of resources and funding.

Some have also been hit by natural disasters such as flooding and civil unrest. A lot of developing countries house the gene banks and as such are subjected to the various challenges that are presented with any developing country. Therefore, it is safe to say that many types of seed and plant have already been lost to us. Wheat and potato varieties can disappear just as quickly and permanently as some ancient species that once roamed the earth many years ago.

The facility is important then for developing countries as food security is not a given in these areas. This can be attributed to a number of factors, such as lack of appropriate infrastructure for correct biodiversity and preservation. Svalbard offers a new level of security that will revolutionize the seed and crop storage and allow developing countries some breathing space with which to operate.

Seeds can survive in a frozen state for a long time.

It varies with the type of crop.

Some crops, such as peas may survive for 20-30 years only, but other crops, such as sunflower and some of the grains may survive for many decades or even hundreds of years.

Eventually, all seeds will lose the ability to germinate – they’ll die. Before this happens, a few seeds are taken from the stored samples and planted. Fresh, new seed is then harvested and placed in storage. This way, the original variety can be perpetuated, and last almost forever.

A very impressive structure, but how are the seeds kept free from compromise?

The answer is permafrost and thick rock.

Aside from this, the seeds are stored in sealed packages within boxes at minus 18 C. The low temperature and limited access to oxygen ensures low metabolic activity and causes a delay in the aging of the seeds. Of course, there exists the very real threat of climate change that could mean the permafrost melting. As such, this has been mitigated by having the facility stored at an ideal altitude and buried deep inside the mountain. Therefore, the vault is protected against any potential rise in sea level as well as permafrost melting. This gives the facility an aspect of future proofing, not found anywhere else.

Spitsbergen: As far north as you can physically get to on a scheduled flight, the remote location offers a solution that is secluded enough to remain free from contamination and tampering, yet still achievable to reach. Svalbard is a unique location for such a facility in multiple ways. Svalbard has perfect climate and geology for underground cold storage. Because of the permafrost, the temperature will never rise above minus 3,5 Celsius. The sandstone at Svalbard is stable to build in and low in radiation. In terms of security, Svalbard scores high compared to the locations of many other gene banks in the world.

The infrastructure is good with daily flights and with a reliable source of energy.

The Norwegian government entirely funded the vault’s approximately US$9 million construction.  The vault currently functions thanks to donors including governments, foundations, the private sector, farmers’ organizations and individuals.

Currently, the Vault holds more than 930,000 samples, originating from almost every country in the world. Ranging from unique varieties of major African and Asian food staples such as maize, rice, wheat, cowpea, and sorghum to European and South American varieties of eggplant, lettuce, barley, and potato. In fact, the Vault already holds the most diverse collection of food crop seeds in the world.

The focus of the Vault is to safeguard as much of the world’s unique crop genetic material as possible, while also avoiding unnecessary duplication. It will take some years to assemble because some gene banks need to multiply stocks of seed first, and other seeds need regenerating before they can be shipped to Svalbard.

  • Seeds can be viable for hundreds and even thousands of years.
  • The oldest seed grown into a viable plant was a Judean date palm seed about 2,000 years old, recovered from excavations at Herod the Great’s palace in Israel
  • It preserves duplicate collections of seeds on behalf of genebanks.
  • The seeds in the Seed Vault can only be accessed when the original seed collections have been completely lost for any reason.
  • The Seed Vault has the capacity to store 4.5 million different seed samples.
  • Each sample contains on  average 500 seeds, so a maximum of 2.25 billion seeds can be stored in the Seed Vault.
  • Priority is given to crops that are important for food production and sustainable agriculture.
  • There are more than 100,000 varieties of rice.
  • Each country or institution owns and controls access to the seeds they deposited.
  • Genebanks also contain living plants and parts of plants in those cases where it is difficult to store the crop in the form of seeds.
  • Plant breeders and researchers are the major users of gene banks.
  • Some seeds may only survive for 20-30 years. Others survive for hundreds of years. Before they die, a few seeds are taken from the stored samples and planted. Fresh, new seed is then harvested and placed in storage. This way, the original variety can be perpetuated, and last almost forever.
  • Import and storage of GMO seeds according to Norwegian legislation will require advance approval.

Let’s take a deeper look at the facility itself and its key attributes;

Takes climate change into account

Scenarios that are known about have been taken into account for climate change. Rising sea levels and Svalbard’s own climate have been considered and combated against. The facility has also been located so deep inside the mountain that any possible changes to Svalbard’s climate, which we know about today, will not affect the efficacy of the permafrost.

This will be a temporary temperature back up in the event of technical failure, such as loss of power supplies for a period.

Three underground chambers

Three underground chambers comprise the structure of the facility with each having the capacity to store 1,5 million different seed samples. With the aid of its own electric machinery, powered by electricity from the local power station, it will maintain a constant interior temperature of minus 18 degrees Celsius. The chambers will have storage shelving for pre-packed examples of food seeds from the depositors (donor countries).

These chambers are accessed via a tunnel that is roughly 100 meters long. An entrance portal exists on each side and this will be the only visible part of the facility. Stylized as a long and narrow concrete fin, brushed steel finishes off the entrance


The outer half of the entrance tunnel is constructed as a steel pipe with a diameter of about 5 metres. This will pass through the layer of snow and ice and the loose rocks, into solid mountain. The innermost part and the storage chambers will be blasted out of the mountain using tunnel drilling and rock blasting techniques. The mountain is secured with bolts and spray concrete. The permafrost will also contribute to stability. The interior floor is of asphalt. There is electric lighting throughout and the facility will be secured against forced entry and will have TV surveillance.

Areas for filing and other administrative work of a temporary nature will be located beside the entrance tunnel. These will be heated to normal room temperature whilst work is going on.

The total floor area of the facility is just under 1,000 square metres.

Why Svalbard

  1. Svalbard, as Norwegian territory, enjoys security and political and social stability. Norway understands the importance of preserving Svalbard as an area of undisturbed nature, which is now an important research and reference area. The seed vault fits ideally into this concept.
  2. Svalbard has an isolated position far out in the ocean, between 74° and 81° N and only 1000 kilometres from the North Pole. The archipelago is characterised by an undisturbed nature. Permafrost provides stable storage conditions for seeds. Besides which there is little risk of local dispersion of seed.
  3. The seed vault, which consists of three chambers, is located right outside Longyearbyen and directly opposite Longyear Airport. The facility is about 130 metres above sea level and has been tunnelled 120 metres into the mountain, in a stable sandstone situation. Each of the three underground chambers is about 1,200 cubic metres (20 metres deep, 10 metres wide and 6 metres high). The location so far below ground guarantees stable permafrost for the foreseeable future and is high enough above sea level to secure the facility against any rise in sea level as a result of global warming.
  4. The facility’s open location near the town makes monitoring and security easier. Security is the responsibility of the Governor of Svalbard in cooperation with the University of Svalbard (UNIS).

Since Svalbard was a natural choice for physical and security reasons, the Norwegian government decided that Norwegian ownership, operating responsibility and financing of the facility was equally natural.  The seed vault is also in line with Norwegian policy with regard to biodiversity, preservation of genetic resources, north-south policy, development policy and food safety, as displayed in the following points:

– In establishing the international seed vault, Norway is making a unique contribution to the preservation of the planet’s most important biodiversity. This will help to fulfil the main objectives of the Biodiversity Convention and the FAO treaty, priority issues for Norway for many years. The seed vault could come to have a special significance for a number of regions in developing countries where the storage conditions in regular gene banks are a constant challenge.

– For many years it has been Norway’s aim to play a bridge-building role in the north-south debate about genetic resources and biological diversity. This doesn’t mean that we necessarily always take the middle line, but rather that we try to see new elements in the positions of all sides with the aim of finding solutions which actually lead to the sensible management of genetic resources. We believe that Svalbard Global Seed Vault can be a unifying initiative, which offers much to countries both north and south and which will hopefully also promote global collaboration in taking care of our most important genetic resources.

– Securing food supplies is one of the most basic issues in any strategy for eliminating poverty. In a time of climate change, this is equally a global issue.  The establishment of a global seed vault is therefore very much in line with the principle of informed self-interest.

We can conclude that the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is something that will positively affect numerous countries and societies across the globe. An impressive and well thought out structure, it represents forward thinking and change that are crucial to the continued upward surge of mankind. In short, the diversity and containment of the multiple species and varieties of plant and seed will see a stable and secure future for all involved and is proving to be a wonderful initiative.

Do you want to learn more about preservation and survival? Check out our Survival Gears Reviews if your goal is to be safe, sane and in control 

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