Banking on Seeds

It’s a little like when people put their valuables in a locked safe to protect them. In this case, the valuables are seeds.

Worldwide, more than 1,700 banks hold collections of food crops for safekeeping. Yet, many of these are vulnerable. They could be exposed to natural disasters or war. They could suffer from lack of funding, poor management, or even lack of power. Something as simple as a broken freezer can ruin an entire collection.

Not at Svalbard. No other seed bank protects its seeds as well as this place. Partly that’s because of the way it was constructed. The vault is inside a mountain. Even if the air system were to fail, the seeds would stay cold for awhile because the vault is underground, packed in rock and ice. The rock that makes up the mountain is geologically stable. The vault is well above sea level, so there is less danger from flooding.

Dozens of shelves in each vault hold hundreds of boxes containing seed packets.

vault entrance

control room

security doors



Here's how it works:


Seeds used to be stored in glass tubes. Now they are put in foil packages that keep out moisture and heat. Each sample contains about 500 seeds.


Seed packets are stored in labeled crates, each coded to its country of origin.


Crates are shipped to the seed vault and stored on shelves. Three to four times a year, the vault is opened and new seed samples are brought inside.


The vault is designed to store up to 4.5 million seed samples—that’s a total of 2.25 billion seeds. So far, the vault holds at least 1,059,646 kinds of seeds and is using only one of its three rooms.

Making a Deposit

The vault is owned by the Kingdom of Norway. A group called the Global Crop Diversity Trust keeps the vault running and sets up seed shipments from other companies and countries.

Currently, this vault holds the most diverse collection of food crop seeds in the world. Some countries like Canada and India have deposited more than 10,000 different varieties of seeds. Others, such as the Republic of the Congo, have deposited fewer than 100 types of seeds.

The seed vault is located in the Arctic Circle. Layers of ice around the vault help preserve the seeds.