Go Inside the Arctic Global Seed Vault

We've always been fascinated by the Svalbard Seed Vault. It's got everything: doomsday contingencies, priceless treasures, and a spooky vault located deep beneath the frozen tundra. But we never knew what it actually looked like inside. That's why we were so excited to see Motherboard's video from the depths of the vault — and we learned that it takes even more international cooperation than we thought to make it work.

"The World's Most Important Room"

They call it "the Noah's Ark of plant diversity," and while that's pretty much as apt a name as possible, the staff at the Global Seed Vault in Svalbard prefer "the world's most important room". That's because this room cut 400 feet into the mountain might contain humanity's last hope. If a disaster erases a vital crop from the face of the planet, we have backups. If climate change leaves some areas unable to sustain their usual crops, the seed vault could contain a template for something that can thrive there instead. And if a particular plant becomes unviable for one reason or another, the work done at the seed vault gives us a more complete understanding of what will work instead.

The work they do at the seed vault isn't just about preserving seeds in case they go extinct. It's also about improving the plant life that we already have. Genetic researchers at the vault have been able to examine hundreds of thousands of varieties of barley, rice, wheat, and other staples, and identify the pieces of their genetic code that makes them capable of growing where they do. Armed with that knowledge, they can try to manipulate the genes of existing plants to improve their viability in different climates and environments, without losing their nutritional value.

A Global Effort

Right now, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault contains more than 900,000 samples, donated from every country in the world. We're all in this together, after all. In the video below, you'll see seeds from Russia and seeds from the Ukraine stored right next to each other, despite how those countries may feel about each other. Even the North Korean government has let down their isolationist tendencies to let their valuable seeds be stored in the global garden shop.

Maybe that's because Svalbard is so far away from the conflicts of the world. The archipelago is technically a part of Norway, but it's actually much closer to the North Pole. Besides the neutrality of distance, the far-flung location keeps the seeds secure in case of disaster. Even if the freezers fail, the islands are cold enough to keep the seeds from spoiling.

That's a good thing, because the vault has already had to be opened up to secure plant biodiversity for future generations. When the seed bank in Aleppo was forced to shutter its doors in the face of war, it relied on the Svalbard Seed Vault to replenish its stores in its new location. You can see the blank space in the vault's stores that used to contain the newly relocated seeds. But even that blank space is a template for something inspiring — a future where humanity can work together for the betterment of all.

Exploring the Arctic's Global Seed Vault

Key Facts In This Video

  1. The global seed vault can contain more than 4 million different crops, and up to 2.5 billion seeds. 00:42

  2. Countries that are enemies outside the vault work together inside it. Even North Korea has seeds stored here. 02:40

  3. Scientists have used the genes of ancient plants kept in the seed vault to develop new strains that can thrive in different growing conditions. 04:00

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Written by Reuben Westmaas August 24, 2017

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