THE BLOG

Millions of Seeds Saved for Humanity

11/07/2013 01:40 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is securely located where nobody wants to go, if they are in their right mind. It is so cold on this Norwegian Arctic island that barely any vegetal or animal life can survive outside. Forget about humans. Only 800 miles from the North Pole, this may be where Santa herds his reindeer.

Entirely founded by the government of Norway, the underground cavern preserves a sampling of plant seeds, free of charge. Looking like a rectangular concrete bunker, the entrance to the vault barely sticks out of the permafrost surroundings. Safely located at 390 feet deep inside a mountain, and at 430 feet above sea level, the facility would be in no danger of flooding, should the ice caps were to melt (but who thinks about that?)

The three-chamber vault can preserve seeds for hundred of years, and even thousands for some species. Despite the frigid environment, the place still needs refrigeration, powered by locally-mined coal, to keep the temperature at zero-degree Fahrenheit. No staff stays on site permanently.

The vault is located less than a mile from the village of Longyearbyen, the world's northernmost town, with just about 2,000 permanent residents. On the coast of the Arctic Ocean, the brightly-colored wooden houses make the coal-mining hamlet look like a candy store, perfect for Christmas! Temperature here ranges from 39 degrees Fahrenheit in the "summer", to 3F in the winter; the town is covered in snow for about 10 months of the year. Well, this is the Arctic.

Even thought its history began in 1983, the massive fridge hiding 1.5 million seeds of crops actually opened in its new facility in 2008. And it can hold more -- up to 4.5 million when it will reach its full capacity. Then, we'll need to build another one, if we are still here, us humans. The seeds might very well outlast us, and some form of alien life will find them, wondering what the heck they are. Oh, no, wait, they will be smarter, so they'll know what to do with them. On another hand, the planet might be so frozen itself, it won't allow any crops to grow anywhere.

In Norway, each and every government-funded project of a certain cost must display some form of art in its concept. I think that is so very cool (pun intended). Norwegian artist Dyveke Sanne was asked to create a piece about light in the Arctic. His installation at the steel-pipe entrance and roof includes reflective steel mirrors to catch the polar summer light, and fiber-optic cables to recreate the absent natural light in the dark winters. The amazing light show has a few amateurs, as the local polar bears have been spotted watching the amazing green-blue effects.

But why, you ask? Heard of the Apocalypse? Should a natural disaster strike, or should human error launch a cataclysmic event (on purpose or not), the vault would act as a safe-deposit box containing the seeds no longer available in traditional seed banks. This place is only a back-up for the 1,400 gene banks of the world. The very same gene banks that have deposited their seeds there, for safekeeping.

You may not just ski up and ask for a seed of your liking; the samples are only accessible under the regulating conditions of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture Act, signed by 118 countries. Besides, Norway owns the building, but the gene banks own whatever seeds they have deposited inside it.

You can however visit Svalbard, if you are not afraid of the weather; of course, for me, living in Florida, forget it! At 75F degrees, I get cold. Snowmobile, Northern lights, polar bears, and dog sledding can be fun, you go first.

See some wonderful pictures here.