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. It’s the perfect name for a land of snow and ice.

From the side of a mountain, a silver walkway leads to a door. A hallway leads to another door. The floor slopes downward along a tunnel. Pipes push cold air toward three air‑locked doors. The middle one is encrusted with ice.

Behind the icy door, there are rows and rows of marked shelves. Each holds boxes of 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.

Protecting Diversity

The Svalbard seed vault was created to protect and store many kinds of seeds of crop plants. Why? To ensure the future of global agriculture.

As our world changes, we need to be prepared. Crops may fail due to pests or climate change. That’s when we need to replace certain kinds of seeds with new ones. Seeds that are tough enough to put up with pests. Or ones that can handle flooding.

Unfortunately, the pool of plants is shrinking. The United States had 500 varieties of cabbage and 285 types of cucumber in 1903. By 1983, the U.S. had only 28 kinds of cabbage and just 16 varieties of cucumber. That enormous change was the same for other kinds of seeds, too.

Seed loss is not limited to the U.S. China has seen a sharp decline in types of rice. Today, only 30 crops provide about 95 percent of our food energy needs. We rely on very few kinds of foods. Yet, the world’s food supplies are always at risk. So, storing seeds for the future is a smart idea.

Long Life

Seeds are kept in the vault under specific conditions. Some seeds can remain that way for 50 to 75 years. Others, like the grain sorghum, could still grow 20,000 years from now!


Expected life (in years)







Maize (corn)