The Svalbard Global Seed Vault — purposely isolated on a remote island some 800 miles from the North Pole — will be upgraded to make the concrete structure more resilient to the whims of weather and climate.
The vault is now 10 years old, and the Norway government, which funds and manages the vault, announced that it’s time for nearly $13 million in upgrades. Specifically, Norway plans to build a new concrete tunnel and a building to protect emergency power and refrigerating units.
Norway says the vault is “built to stand the test of time.” It’s a long-term storage facility for the globe’s stock of crop seeds, should the world’s agriculture become threatened or imperiled by “war, terrorism and natural disasters.”
Seeds stored and organized in boxes in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.
Image: Landbruks- og matdepartementet
Over 5,000 species of crop plants — like beans, potatoes, and rice — are currently stored in the vault, although the vault is designed to contain far more.
It’s designed to hold 2.25 billion seeds, encompassing 4.5 million crop varieties. The rationale is to maintain a rich genetic diversity of seeds for each crop, increasing the plant’s resiliency to different environmental conditions — should the seeds have to be planted.
In 2015, for example, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas took seeds from the vault and planted them in Syria for research purposes. The organization then returned the seeds to Svalbard after harvest.
A tunnel inside the seed vault.
Image: Matthias Heyde
The seed bank had already been planning to do some retrofitting to keep some “water intrusion” from getting into the tunnel. This leaking had been occurring regularly during the warmer summer seasons.
In 2016 — the hottest recorded year on Earth — water made it around 15 meters into the 100 meter tunnel. Some of the permafrost (soil that remains frozen year-round) surrounding the vault thawed, causing “no flooding, but more water than we like,” a spokesperson for the Norwegian government told Popular Science.
The seeds, fortunately, were unharmed and apparently in no real danger during the event.
Still, Norway is now continuing to fortify the facility against any such future warming events, as is evidenced by upgrades to refrigeration and power facilities.