The Svalbard Global Seed Vault contains over 500 million seeds and represents the most diverse collection of food crop seeds in the world. Located just 800 miles from the North Pole, the vault is lodged 100 meters into the side of a permanently frozen mountain on a remote island in the Svalbard archipelago. Welcome to the World’s Most Important Freezer.

This super-secure seed vault is designed to stand the test of time and whatever strain natural and man-made disasters may put on the survival of essential food crops. In fact, for the millions of seeds that are deposited in it, the Global Seed Vault acts as something of a cross between bank and backup. 

“These boxes are sealed when they enter Svalbard,” said Bente Naeverdal, gesturing to black box filled with deposited seeds. Naeverdal, the manager of the Global Seed Vault, spoke in a YouTube documentary published by Veritasium.And none of us can open it. It works like a bank box – only the depositor can open it and take the seeds.”

However, a list of the contents of each box are publicly available on the internet, if one knows the serial ID for the box.

The high-level security afforded each deposit of seeds is warranted because these seeds act as final backups in case a particular plant species dies out in a region. There are over 1,700 “gene banks” that hold collections of food crops for safekeeping across the world. But many of these gene banks are vulnerable to disasters, such as war, lack of funding or even poor management. 

Man arranging black boxes on shelves in Svalbard vault

Deposits of seeds from around the world reach Svalbard in highly secure “black boxes” that are placed in vaults till they need to be recovered by the depositor. COURTESY OF STEPHEN WELDON VIA INHABITING THE ANTHROPOCENE.

Following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iraq’s seed bank near Baghdad was looted and destroyed during the insurgency. Luckily, Iraqi scientists had sent a “black box” containing copies of the country’s seed stocks to the seed bank in Aleppo, Syria, shortly before the invasion. The Syrian seed bank subsequently helped regenerate Iraqi farming with the seeds in that black box. 

But the catastrophic civil war in Syria that has been ongoing for nearly a decade has rendered the country’s seed bank out of order – Aleppo was being bombed by the Syrian President. Since the Syrian seed vault stored seeds deposited from many Middle Eastern countries, it’s loss would have been devastating to the region. 

“So, one-third of the material that is being kept (in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault) is now taken down to Morocco and Lebanon,” Naeverdal said. 

They will be used to grow crops and replenish the seed banks in those countries, she added. Indeed, Svalbard is so important in safeguarding humanity’s food supply because the vault is the most secure back up the world has.  

The Svalbard vault is constructed to last at least 200 years, and can withstand earthquakes, rising sea levels and explosions. It is built to maintain subzero temperatures for at least a century should there be a sudden loss of electricity or should the coolant used by the vault somehow malfunction. In the meanwhile, though, the vault is kept at a steady –18℃. No other seed bank provides this level of security and preservation. 

Frozen inside seed vault, Svalbard

The seed vault is lodged 100 meters into a permanently frozen mountain. The cold can preserve the stored seeds indefinitely. COURTESY OF MATTHIAS HEYDE VIA LANDBRUKS.

Yet, perhaps the greatest protection the Svalbard vault offers isn’t against warring dictators, but against the threat of climate change and increasing globalization. Due to a worrying combination of both, the diversity of crops we depend on has drastically fallen. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, only about 30 crops provide 95% of global human food energy needs. And in the U.S., 90% of fruit and vegetable varieties have disappeared since the 1900s. 

This means that it is imperative we have secure backups of the crops we depend on. But also, it means that we must maintain seeds of plant species that are in danger of disappearing forever. 

“Biological diversity and the related ecosystem services are crucial to cope with changes and achieve food security for all,” according to the UNEP report.

Securing the biodiversity of food crops is the vital importance of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Indeed, with the capacity to hold over 2 billion seeds, this seed vault may be humanity’s final insurance against extinction.

Which fruit or vegetable can you just not live without? If you could, would you have its seeds stored at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault to open in a hundred years? Leave a comment below!