From the air, it’s a tiny group of islands halfway between Norway and the North Pole. Svalbard. Its name means “cold coasts” in Icelandic. The name suits it. It’s a landscape of snow and ice.
Near a place called Plateau Mountain, a sliver of metal sticks out from the side of the mountain. It’s a silver walkway leading to a door. Seems strange to find a door here, in the side of a mountain. What is this place?
Just past the door is a narrow, concrete hallway. At the end of the hallway, a locked door. Beyond the locked door, the floor falls away in a downward slope along a long tunnel. The air is noticeably cooler here. Overhead, pipes push cold air further down into the mountain. At the bottom of the tunnel are three air‑locked doors. The middle one is encrusted with ice.
Behind the icy door, there are rows and rows of shelves. They fill the -18 degree‑Celsius (0‑degree‑Fahrenheit) room. The shelves hold box after box after box. Inside the boxes: seeds. Welcome to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.
Hallways, tunnels, and doors lead to a vault filled with seeds.
These seeds are stored in glass tubes.
The Svalbard seed vault was created to protect and store as many unique kinds of seeds of crop plants as possible. Why? Think of it as an insurance policy for future global agriculture.
As our world changes, we need to be prepared. Crops may fail in a given area during a pest infestation or as a result of climate change. That’s when we need to replace certain strains of seeds with new ones. Ones that are tough enough to tolerate pests. Or ones that can handle flooding. Or ones that can take on extreme temperatures or poor soil conditions. These super seeds might be present in some rare types of crop plants. But we may want to breed one kind of plant with another to get the seed we need. So, it’s important to have a large supply of the raw materials available to us.
Unfortunately, that pool of plants is shrinking. We are beginning to lose distinctive kinds of seeds. Records show that the United States had 500 varieties of cabbage and 285 types of cucumber for sale in 1903. By 1983, the National Seed Storage Laboratory listed only 28 kinds of cabbage. And just 16 varieties of cucumber. That sweeping change was the same for other kinds of seeds. America lost 93 percent of its seed types in only 80 years.
Seed loss is not limited to the U.S. China has seen a sharp decline in varieties of rice. Only 10 percent of the types of rice that were being grown there in the 1950s are still being grown.
Some changes in agriculture have been revolutionary. People now produce crops with more machines and on larger scales. That’s great—more food for more people. But, only 30 crops provide about 95 percent of humans’ food energy needs. We are relying on very few kinds of foods. Yet, the world’s food supplies are always at risk of disease or drought or some other peril. So, storing seeds for the long term is a smart idea.
Seeds are kept in a dormant state in the vault under specific conditions. Some seeds can remain that way for 50 to 75 years. Others, like the grain sorghum used to make livestock feed (pictured here), could still germinate 20,000 years from now!
Expected life (in years)
Map of Washington, D.C., 1860s
The White House
United States Capitol