This? Oh, This is Just a Mountain-Fitted Refrigerator Built for the End Times

The Svalbard Seed Vault in the Arctic Circle contains hundreds of thousands of seed samples from around the world. Why?


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The Scandinavian nations have a reputation for being progressive and forward-thinking. Nowhere is that more evident than in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which is essentially a giant refrigerator for seed samples in the Arctic Circle. Located on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, the vault is a kind of fail-safe in the event of a massive apocalyptic food shortage.

How’s that for forward-thinking?

The inspiration for the Svalbard project was the lack of genetic diversity that exists among global crops, a situation that arose due to agricultural changes over the past century. The simultaneous demand for profit and maximal crop yields gave rise to cultivars—plants that have been produced through selective breeding to satisfy these demands. These cultivars are cloned for their yield properties, which have helped produce the tremendous global food supply, but also exposed our most common crops to an insidious danger: disease.

Illustration of the Svalbard Vault

Because of the lack of genetic diversity among global crops, an especially pernicious mutated strain of bacteria or fungus could wipe out the world’s entire supply of corn, wheat, and rice in a matter of months, causing a food shortage of epic proportions.

With this threat in mind, a group of conservationists broke ground on the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in 2006, choosing the high-latitude location for its permafrost and low geological activity (Svalbard is tectonically dead). The idea was conceptualized by American professor Cary Fowler and is currently managed by the Global Crop Diversity Trust. It was completed in 2008.

With a capacity of more than 4.5 million seed samples, the vault stores duplicate specimens from gene banks throughout the world. Seeds are stored in sealed envelopes, which are then placed in plastic containers on metal shelving racks. The vault, which is located inside a large sandstone mountain, works like a giant refrigerator maintained at 0 °F. The lack of oxygen also helps counteract the effects of aging on the specimens; in such conditions, the seeds can remain viable for thousands of years.

And even in the event of a total power loss, the frigid arctic surroundings ensure that it would take weeks for the temperature to rise above 3 °F, according to Atlas Obscura. That’s one tough fridge.

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As of March, Svalbard housed some 770,000 distinct seed samples. Great job, Norway.

[All photos: Flickr, Global Crop Diversity Trust]

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