For the last seven years, nations from across the globe have been quietly stockpiling something essential to mankind’s potential future survival on a glacier-covered island 800 miles from the North Pole. Here, tunneled deep inside an Arctic mountain, is a secluded bunker known colloquially as the “Doomsday Vault.” This is the world’s backup plan in the event of global natural disaster; it could someday restore a post-apocalyptic world.
It all began when, over a decade ago, the international research community recognized that global warming, disease and war were threatening an essential aspect of humankind’s future prospects. A search was then launched to find the ultimate safe-house for these essentials, and by 2004 the hunt had led scientists to the very edge of the world.
It’s hard to imagine a location more remote than the Svalbard archipelago. These ice-clad islands sit in the Arctic Ocean at the halfway point between Norway, and the North Pole and the archipelago is the most northerly point accessible by commercial flight.
In 2006, the insides were blasted out of Svalbard’s Platåfjell mountain to make way for a $9 million Doomsday project. The vault opened inside its snowy slopes just a year later. Two things made this Arctic mountain the perfect hiding place for what is stored inside.
Firstly, the location’s Arctic conditions make it a natural freezer, ideal for cold storage. Even in the event of a power failure, the temperature in Svalbard vault will only rise to meet that of the surrounding permafrost – at its warmest, 26.6°F.
Secondly, Svalbard’s remote location means that it is largely untouched by man and – it is hoped – far away from the fighting, floods and fires that have wreaked havoc on other similar vaults. These are islands populated only by polar bears and reindeer, as well as just a few thousand people.
The vault itself is largely unmanned and has no full-time employees. For the most part, the facility only receives visitors a handful of times a year, and they arrive with some very important deliveries…
Seeds from all around the world are flown into the nearby Longyearbyen airport to be transported to this unique repository, officially known as the Global Seed Vault. To the naked eye, the only sign of life on the facility’s icy perimeters is the portal building that stands at its entrance.
During the months of Polar Night, the sun doesn’t shine at all on Svalbard. But even in the frozen Arctic darkness — or perhaps one day in the pitch blackness left behind in a post-apocalyptic world — this portal building will project a beacon of light.
The exterior is illuminated by a huge fibre-optic light installation, the work of Norwegian artist Dyveke Sanne. The rest of the facility is kept deep undercover, rock-bolted 492 feet into the sandstone mountain where missiles, earthquakes and even asteroids are unable harm it – it is hoped.
The Svalbard Global Seed Bank was built with a number of worst-case scenarios in mind. This ingeniously disaster-proofed ice-clad bunker has been meticulously engineered to protect its contents for thousands of years to come.
Its concrete-clad structure was carefully carved into the most geologically stable piece of mountainside available. Here, it lies sheathed underneath layers of compacted permafrost that will remain frozen even during the warmer summer months.
Image: Creative Commons/Bjoertvedt
The Svalbard islands were hit by a deadly avalanche in December 2015, and the bunker has had to withstand some of the harshest weather conditions on the planet. Indeed, its portal building is cantilevered out of the reach of heavy snowfalls, while its foundations are 426 feet above sea level, so it will surely be safe should the region’s mighty icecaps begin to melt one day.
Arriving seeds are trolleyed along a 328-foot steel tunnel, which runs from the portal to the mountain. Inside the cavern, they are crated and brought to their rocky resting chamber, where each precious cache is stored at a constant temperature of -0.4°F.
Image: NordGen/Johan Bäckman
The three meticulously organized storage chambers, each of equal dimensions, are together capable of housing 4.5 million of the world’s most valuable crop types, or 2.25 billion seeds in total. That’s a lot of seeds.
The treasured collection currently safeguards the harvests of more than 860,000 different crop variations from 328 countries. Among them are the seeds to grow many varieties of potato, rice, chickpea and barley, as well as malts used in microbreweries across the globe. Phew – the beer’s safe.
So far, the U.S. has sent 37,852 seeds to the snow-bound facility for safekeeping, while the U.K. has added 2,610. In September, for the first time in the Doomsday bank’s seven-year history, disaster forced one country to make a withdrawal.
As the Syrian civil war edged toward the city of Aleppo in the summer of 2012, employees at the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) struggled to save what research they could before the facility had to be abandoned. Thankfully, they had made a backup collection.
ICARDA had sent 80 percent of its seed collection to Svalbard earlier that year. As the situation in Syria worsened, ICARDA scientists were forced to check 16,500 of their seeds back out this autumn, and they plan to continue their work in Beirut.
Future plans are now in the pipeline for a huge $850 million project that will provide for similar seed banks around the world. For now though, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault remains humankind’s best chance for future biodiversity.
And should Doomsday ever arrive, it’s reassuring to know that stacked on the shelves inside a Norwegian mountain, carefully packaged inside millions of four-ply airtight aluminum envelopes, are the seeds that could replant our sodden or parched soils after a natural disaster. Or, perhaps, even grow through the cracked terrain of a nuclear wasteland.