"Long before it's in the papers"
January 28, 2015


“Noah’s Ark” seed vault opens

Feb. 26, 2008
Courtesy Global Crop Diversity Trust
and World Science staff

A vault designed to pro­tect va­nish­ing seed va­rie­ties for fu­ture gener­a­t­ions opened Feb. 26 on a re­mote Arc­tic is­land.

The Sval­bard Glob­al Seed Vault, a pro­ject of the Nor­we­gian go­vern­ment, re­ceived in­au­gu­ral ship­ments of 100 mil­lion seeds that orig­i­nat­ed in over 100 coun­tries. 

The seed vault's entrance juts out from a mountainside. (Credit: Mari Tefre/Global Crop Diversity Trust)

With de­posits rang­ing from un­ique va­ri­eties of Af­ri­can and Asian food sta­ples such as maize, rice, wheat, cow­pea, and sor­ghum to Eu­ro­pe­an and South Amer­i­can va­ri­eties of egg­plant, let­tuce, bar­ley, and po­ta­to, the first de­posits rep­re­sent what of­fi­cials called the most com­pre­hen­sive and di­verse col­lec­tion of food crop seeds held any­where.

At the open­ing cer­e­mo­ny, Nor­we­gian Prime Min­is­ter Jens Stoltenberg un­locked the cham­ber and, with Af­ri­can No­bel Peace Prize-winning en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist Wan­gari Maathai, placed the first seeds in­side. 

Eu­ro­pe­an Com­mis­sion Pres­ident José Man­u­el Bar­roso along with dig­ni­tar­ies and ag­ri­cul­ture ex­perts from around the globe de­posited ad­di­tion­al seeds. Nor­we­gian mu­si­cians al­so per­formed at the open­ing cer­e­mo­ny, held 130 me­tres deep in a fro­zen moun­tain.

Built near the vil­lage of Long­year­byen on the is­land of Spits­ber­gen, Nor­way, the vault at its in­cep­tion con­tains 268,000 dis­tinct seed sam­ples—each from a dif­fer­ent farm or field. Each sam­ple may con­tain hun­dreds of seeds or more. In all, the day’s ship­ments weighed some 10 tonnes.

The vault is part of what its pro­po­nents call an un­prec­e­dent­ed ef­fort to pro­tect the plan­et’s rap­idly di­min­ish­ing bio­di­vers­ity. 

The ge­net­ic di­vers­ity of crops is es­sen­tial for food pro­duc­tion, yet sci­en­tists say it’s be­ing lost. The vault, dug deep in­to the fro­zen rock of an Arc­tic moun­tain, is meant to se­cure for cen­turies, or long­er, hun­dreds of mil­lions of seeds rep­re­senting eve­ry im­por­tant crop va­ri­e­ty avail­a­ble in the world to­day. As well as pro­tecting against the dai­ly loss of di­vers­ity, the vault is al­so seen as a last-resort bul­wark for restart­ing ag­ri­cul­tur­al pro­duc­tion at the re­gion­al or glob­al lev­el in the wake of a nat­u­ral or man-made dis­as­ter. Con­tin­gen­cies for cli­mate change have been worked in­to the plan. Even in the worst-case sce­nar­i­os of glob­al warm­ing, the vault rooms will re­main nat­u­ral­ly fro­zen for up to 200 years, its de­sign­ers say.

“With cli­mate change and oth­er forc­es threat­en­ing the di­vers­ity of life that sus­tains our plan­et, Nor­way is proud to be play­ing a cen­tral role in cre­at­ing a facil­ity ca­pa­ble of pro­tecting what are not just seeds, but the fun­da­men­tal build­ing blocks of hu­man civ­il­iz­a­tion,” said Nor­way’s Prime Min­is­ter Jens Stoltenberg.

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A vault designed to protect rare seeds for future gener ations opened Feb. 26 on a remote Arctic island. Svalbard Global Seed Vault receiving inaugural shipments of 100 million seeds that originated in over 100 countries. With the deposits ranging from un ique varieties of major African and Asian food staples such as maize, rice, wheat, cowpea, and sorghum to European and South American varieties of eggplant, lettuce, barley, and potato, the first deposits represent what its officials called the most comprehensive and diverse collection of food crop seeds being held anywhere in the world. At the opening ceremony, Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg un locked the vault and, with African Nobel Peace Prize-winning environ mentalist Wangari Maathai, placed the first seeds inside. European Commission President José Manuel Barroso along with dignitaries and agriculture experts from around the globe deposited additional seeds. Norwegian musicians also performed in the opening ceremony, held 130 metres deep in a frozen mountain. Built near the village of Longyearbyen on the island of Spitsbergen, the vault at its inception contains 268,000 distinct seed samples—each originating from a different farm or field. Each sample may contain hundreds of seeds or more. In all, the day’s shipments weighed some 10 tonnes. The vault is part of what its proponents call an un precedented effort to protect the planet’s rapid ly diminishing biodivers ity. The genetic divers ity of our crops is essential for food production, yet scientists say it’s being lost. The facil ity, dug deep into the frozen rock of an Arctic mountain, is meant to secure for centuries, or longer, hundreds of millions of seeds representing every important crop variety available in the world today. As well as protecting against the dai ly loss of divers ity, the vault is also seen as a last-resort bulwark for restarting agricultural production at the regional or global level in the wake of a natural or man-made disaster. Contingencies for climate change have been worked into the plan. Even in the worst-case scenarios of global warming, the vault rooms will remain natural ly frozen for up to 200 years, its designers say. “With climate change and other forces threatening the divers ity of life that sustains our planet, Norway is proud to be playing a central role in creating a facil ity capable of protecting what are not just seeds, but the funda mental building blocks of human civil ization,” said Norway’s Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg.