The Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, only about 800 miles from the North Pole, is the most important place in the world that you’ve never heard of.
That’s because Spitsbergen is home to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which houses millions upon millions of plant and vegetable seeds from around the planet. In the event of some unforeseen global crisis, the Svalbard vault ensures we will have the seeds of life to begin again.
In this special DNews field report, dedicated Seeker Trace Dominguez travels to Spitsbergen to get a close-up look at he Svalbard facility and speak with Marie Haga, executive director of the CropTrust, the group that oversees the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.
“In there, you have 13,000 years history of agriculture,” Haga says. “It’s quite amazing.”
Indeed. Svalbard is like the Ultimate Plan B for humanity and agriculture, a tradition we’ve grown rather fond of over the millennia. The facility stores backup collections of seeds that are otherwise protected in 1,700-plus seed banks worldwide. Carved into the inside of a Spitsbergen mountain, Svalbard currently houses more than 860,000 varieties of seeds, protected by 130 meters of earth and sandstone.
Geographically, Svalbard is ideal for several reasons. The island is blanketed in permafrost, keeping the seeds naturally refrigerated at a minimum temperature in the event of, say, a worldwide power outage. The facility is also 400 feet above sea level, in case the ice caps melt. Finally, the region is relatively calm in regard to tectonic activity.
While there’s no official word on zombie apocalypse defenses, we assume that contingency plans are in place.
Feasibility tests performed over the past few decades suggest that the conditions at Svalbard are sufficient to keep most seeds preserved for hundreds of years, and in some cases, even thousands of years.
This kind of seed preservation is critically important, and not just for doomsday scenarios, either. Seed banks preserve genetic crop diversity that we might otherwise lose employing modern agricultural practices.
“There are 4,500 varieties of potatoes, 3,000 varieties of coconuts, 35,000 varieties of corn, 125,000 varieties of wheat, or 200,000 varieties of rice,” Haga says. “One of those might have the trait that we need in the future to adapt the rice to whatever it is — higher temperature, higher salinity in the soil, more unpredictable weather, a variety that can fight a new pest or a new disease.”
Check out Trace’s video for more information on Svalbard, one of humanity’s greatest ongoing science projects.