The world's seed collections are vulnerable to a wide range of threats - civil strife, war, natural catastrophes, and, more routinely but no less damagingly, poor management, lack of adequate funding, and equipment failures. Unique varieties of our most important crops are lost whenever any such disaster strikes: securing duplicates of all collections in a global facility provides an insurance policy for the world's food supply.
The Seed Vault is an answer to a call from the international community to provide the best possible assurance of safety for the world's crop diversity, and in fact the idea for such a facility dates back to the 1980s. However, it was only with the coming into force of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, and with it an agreed international legal framework for conserving and accessing crop diversity, that the Vault became a practical possibility.
The Vault is dug into a mountainside near the village of Longyearbyen, Svalbard. Svalbard is a group of islands nearly a thousand kilometres north of mainland Norway. Remote by any standards, Svalbard's airport is in fact the northernmost point in the world to be serviced by scheduled flights - usually one lands a day. For nearly four months a year the islands are enveloped in total darkness. Permafrost and thick rock ensure that, even without electricity, the samples remain frozen.
The Vault's construction was funded by the Norwegian government as a service to the world, and Norway also contributes an annual sum towards its operation. The Vault is managed in partnership between the Trust, Nordic Genetic Resource Center (NordGen) and the Government of Norway. The Trust considers the Vault an essential component of a rational and secure global system for conserving the diversity of all our crops. The Trust is therefore committed to supporting ongoing operational costs, and is assisting developing countries with preparing, packaging and transporting samples of unique accessions from their genebanks to the Arctic.
The Trust is currently supporting more than 100 institutes worldwide to regenerate unique accessions and deposit a safety duplicate sample in the Vault. The project is also financing the deposit of samples from the international collections of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). To date 390,052 total seed samples have been deposited with Trust support. Today the Vault holds over 500,000 samples.
The vault itself (the architectural design is by Peter W. Soderman MNAL of Barlindhaug Consult) is marked by a concrete prow jutting from the mountain. The narrow opening leads to a tunnel that continues deep into the permafrost and to the three underground chambers for storage of the actual seeds. The rather small 1,000-sm (10,750-sf) facility uses the mass of the earth and the cold climate -- having taken into account climate change scenarios in the final location of the vault -- as a backup for the maintenance of below-zero conditions; electrical means maintain the temperature currently.