Sowing New Seeds in Syria With Svalbard’s Noahs Ark

In the middle of the Arctic Ocean, half way between Norway and the North Pole, lies the island of Svalbard. A place where polar bears roam, where in the summer the sun never sets and during winter the northern lights colour the sky. This is the location of the world’s only global seed vault, housing the largest collection of crop diversity from all over the earth.

This remarkable structure tunnels 500 feet into the side of a mountain, its entrance jutting out from the icy rock, looking just as alien as the desolate landscape that surrounds it.

Costing the Norwegian government around $9 million (US) to construct, the facility is built to withstand everything from a nuclear war to an asteroid strike. This fact has earned it the nickname ‘the doomsday vault’, a store from which we will be able to regrow a food source in the aftermath of some unknown apocalyptic catastrophe.

NordGen (Nordic Genetic Resource Center) co-ordinator Åsmund Asdal is keen to distance the project from this media-sensationalised portrayal, but he is also proud to admit that there’s no other facility like this in the world. “Hundreds of seed gene banks exist but the vault at Svalbard is the only place that offers safe storage for copies of these conserved seeds.” And this is storage on a mighty scale. “We have space in total for 4.5 million seed samples, that’s double the number that we know are present in gene banks.”

Norway has often been at the forefront of environmental innovation so perhaps it’s unsurprising that they were so willing to take on this project. “Yes, Norway has always been committed to biodiversity,” explains Asdal, but of course this is far from the only reason the vault was built in such an inhospitable environment. “Svalbard is a perfect place partly because of the permafrost.” (If the artificial cooling systems fail then the seeds will crucially remain frozen at −5 °C) “But also because it’s remote and far away from any conflicts.”

This last point is key in understanding the unique importance of the SGSV. When the vault opened in 2008, the man behind the project, conservationist Cary Fowler, stated “I hope we never have to use Svalbard. It’s an insurance policy.” Yet just last year the vault was relied upon for the first time to replenish seed varieties lost during the conflict in Syria. And unfortunately this is not an uncommon occurrence. Gene banks in Iraq and Afghanistan were also destroyed during the recent years of war in those countries.

The loss of human life dominates headlines, but there are other inevitable losses that accompany war, and the loss of the world’s biodiversity is a serious and often overlooked threat. The seed bank in the now devastated Syrian city of Aleppo had specialised in seeds from crops adapted to arid environments, something we can’t afford to lose and will need more of as climate change continues to affect farming.

The vault at Svalbard is designed to last for centuries and hopefully it will be a long time before any other withdrawals need to be made. In the meantime it’s reassuring to know that the earth’s biodiversity is being stored in a place that has the ability to withstand human warfare.

“We will continue to receive seeds,” Asdal tells me with an enthusiasm that reveals just how keenly aware he is of the scale and significance of the project. “There are 2.2 million unique seed samples conserved in gene banks all over the world. Our aim is to provide the safe storage for all of these.”