We often hear that things have gone all the way to heckola, in the bad old world of 2018. Pollution, deforestation, people generally doing super unfortunate things to each other. I passed a newsstand on my way to the store just this morning, and saw about six different headlines that made me want to just crawl under the blankets and never come out.
It’s easy to get totally down about that sort of thing. Heck, you can hardly hop onto social media anymore without seeing something that makes you fear for the future of humanity and our planet. That’s one of the main factors that gives us our impetus to travel, really: seeing some of the world’s most incredible sights and attractions before we ruthlessly sell them, flatten them and build a McDonald’s and a couple of apartment blocks in their place.
I do get a little worried about the future at times. I do worry that my as-yet-unconceived children will inherit a world where they can’t even breathe on the surface without special apparatus.
As bleak a picture as I’m painting here, though, here’s something else important to bear in mind: some of us are working towards ensuring our futures. To safeguarding us from any future disasters, natural or of our own darn making. Somewhere in the chilly snows of Svalbard stands the Doomsday Vault. Let’s take a look at the seeds they’re stockpiling, the polar bears that totally DO guard the place and the mysterious Black Box system they’ve put in place.
25 It’s Less-Dramatically Known As The Svalbard Seed Vault
That’s right. It may not be the sort of name that’s going to bring curious tourists flocking to the area, but the official name of the place is the Svalbard Seed Vault.
It’s located on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, a stark, steely vault that is intended to protect the future of mankind in case of global disaster. No, it doesn’t contain the Avengers or Arnold Schwarzenegger’s robo-self from the Terminator movies, but simply a great variety of the seeds that essential crops derive from. The idea is that we’ll always have an emergency source to begin from, should it ever be needed.
24 Where In The World Is Svalbard? Near The North Pole, That’s Where
Now, when you’re talking about a project such as this, one that could be essential to our very survival if we screw things up (which we likely will) or if Mother Nature screws things up for us (which she likely will), the first concern would be: you’d better choose a darn safe place for it.
There are no worries on that front. Svalbard is a rather obscure part of the world, a Norwegian archipelago in the middle of the Arctic Ocean. The Doomsday Vault itself is situated on Spitsbergen, the biggest island in the region, which is around 800 miles from the North Pole.
23 It’s One Of The Safest, Most Remote Places On Earth
Needless to say, then, this isn’t the kind of place that any old tourist can hop on a plane to and wander around worry-free in their cargo shorts, commenting on how cheap everything is compared to back home.
Svalbard is a beautiful, natural, uncompromising, inhospitable place, host to all the frigid temperatures and bleakness you’d expect. On Svalbard, you’ll find the world’s northernmost settlements with permanent residents, as some of them are only inhabited by researchers who journey here on a temporary basis to gather data.
In short, out of the way is probably a safe way to describe the Doomsday Vault.
22 One Gene Bank To Rule Them All (All 1,700 Others)
Of course, the concept of a super-safe vault to store samples and specimens of crops and seeds is nothing new. We’ve been doing this for some years now, and there are around 1,700 of these facilities around the world.
The trouble with them, though, is that depending on where they’re situated, they’re not safe. For a variety of reasons. As Live Science reports,
“[these] collections of seeds… are all vulnerable to natural disasters, equipment malfunctions and other problems.”
With this in mind, a sort of master gene bank was needed. One that would truly be disaster-proof. Which is where the plan for the Svalbard Global Seed Vault came from.
21 Cary Fowler, Taking Safety To The Next Level
Live Science goes on to explain that the Doomsday Vault was the brainchild of Cary Fowler, a scientist and conservationist who recognised the crucial nature of biodiversity. In 2003, Fowler started to put together an idea for a facility that would go several steps beyond those that humanity had already created. The gene bank to end all gene banks.
While it’s impossible for anything we build to be truly foolproof and disaster proof, now and in the future, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is the greatest step we’ve made towards that goal yet. Fowler’s vision could well be our greatest hope, even if we do hope that we never need it.
20 It’s In Norway, Because They’re Trustworthy
As we’ll see a little later in this rundown, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is just that: Global. Organisations from all over the planet are welcome to submit some seeds for approval and perhaps eventual inclusion in the vault (subject to strict guidelines, obviously). Even so, though, it’s got to be physically somewhere, so why Norway?
"We absolutely had to situate the vault in a country that was respected and trusted globally, particularly in relation to the issue of biodiversity, which can have politically contentious aspects," Fowler explained. "Norway fits the bill in this regard rather better than any other; it is admired and trusted.”
There’s much more to the choice than just that, though.
19 It’s Really, *REALLY* Darn Cold In There
So, yes. With an endeavour like this, you’ve got to be darn picky about where you’re going to situate the vault. The first consideration, as Fowler explained, was to ensure it was in a country that others would want to collaborate with, to mutually respect and such. Norway is just that, but it’s something else too: really freaking cold in places.
“Svalbard offers almost perfect conditions,” Fowler went on. “It is remote and thus safer than other possible locations and it is naturally cold. We wanted to have a facility that would stay naturally frozen without the aid of mechanical freezing equipment. Inside the mountain in the permafrost, we get steady below-freezing temperatures. We mechanically lower the temperature further to about minus 18 C [0 F], but this is much easier to accomplish when you start at -5 C [23 F] rather than above freezing."
18 We’re All In This Together
Oh, heckola. That’s got that darn High School Musical song stuck in my head for the next week or so.
Hastening back to the point at hand, though, we’ve already touched on the fact that everybody contributes their own seeds. As reported by the Encyclopaedia Britannica, over 100 countries around the world support and endorse the Vault, and each of them submit their own seeds to the mix.
The process of actually doing so, and accessing them afterwards should it be necessary, is heavily automated, as we’ll see later in this rundown.
17 Come On Down To The Grand Opening
By which I mean, obviously, don’t come on down to the grand opening. It’s really darn cold here, there are angry polar bears (we’ll meet them later too), and this wasn’t a governor-has-a-nice-photo-op-with-a-pair-of-novelty-oversized-scissors sort of opening.
Never mind all of that, though. What’s important is that construction of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault kicked off in June of 2006, and it officially began its good work in February 2008, when it took in its first ceremonial deposit of seeds.
This means that the Vault has been in operation for nearly eleven years now (where in heckola has 2018 going, friends? It feels like it was New Years… last weekend).
16 It’s All About The Money, Money, Money
As we’ve seen, then, the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard was deemed the perfect location for this vital resource. Not only is it situated in a country of global repute, which helps to encourage contributions and trust from around the world, it boasts unique conditions that will best ensure the survival of the samples.
This is all well and good, of course, but another big factor was funding. The construction costs of the Vault were provided solely by the Norwegian government. Later in this rundown, we’ll see that it wasn’t all that expensive for such a vital facility, but this gesture went a long way.
15 It’s (Hopefully) Global Warming-Proof
So, just how safe is the Doomsday Vault exactly? Well, try this factoid on for size: it’s claimed to be global warming proof. This is one of the things that you can’t quite determine for sure without seeing how things are going to pan out, but its creators have done their very best.
It’s a surviving the worst-case scenario sort of situation, really. As We Add Up explains, the Vault “…is the location of an abandoned coal mine that is nearly 135 meters above the fjord below-so it is safe from rising sea waters should global warming cause them to increase.”
14 Now That’s A Whole Lot Of Seeds, Right There
Another important consideration is storage capacity. After all, if one of many unfortunate Doomsday situations does befall us in the future, we’re going to need an adequate variety of specimens and an adequate number of them.
As such, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault was built to accommodate a dizzying amount of seeds. As of 2015, We Add Up reports, the total number of samples lay at around 770,000. There’s around 500 seeds in each, which puts the total number of individual seeds at around 400 million. Of course, this number is on the steady increase, and strict records are kept.
13 It’s *ALWAYS* Good To Have A Backup
Whether you’re an office worker, a gamer or just someone who uses any kind of technology ever, you’ll know the golden rule: you always want to backup everything. Everything.
When you’re dealing with what could be essential food supplies to bring us back from potential extinction, that’s just a shade more serious than losing a save file for a video game. Hence the Svalbard Vault’s creation.
As Crop Trust explains, “It was the recognition of the vulnerability of the world’s genebanks that sparked the idea of establishing a global seed vault to serve as a backup storage facility. The purpose of the Vault is to store duplicates (backups) of seed samples from the world’s crop collections.”
In short, as I say, the purpose of the vault is to serve as a failsafe for the similar vaults we already have. A backup to the backups, if you will.
12 The Ultimate Insurance Plan
With all the horror stories we hear about the state of our planet and the direction it’s taking, it’s nice to hear a more positive story once in a while. A story of hope, a promise that we can have some kind of a future if we ease up on all the destruction and wastage.
That’s what the Svalbard Vault represents. As its ‘official site’ Crop Trust puts it,
“The Vault is the ultimate insurance policy for the world’s food supply, offering options for future generations to overcome the challenges of climate change and population growth. It will secure, for centuries, millions of seeds representing every important crop variety available in the world today. It is the final back up.”
Now that’s quite a promise.
11 Apparently, Get-Out-Of-Doomsday-Free Cards Are Fairly Cheap
With everything we’ve heard so far, then, you’d be forgiven for expecting this high-tech and secretive facility to have cost a huge amount of money. As it turns out, though, that wasn’t really the case.
As reported by We Add Up, the original construction of the vault cost around $9 million, with general maintenance and running costs of roughly $100,000 each year.
Now, I’m not saying that we mere mortals could just casually drop $9 million on a fancy base at the North Pole. It’s just, with the grand scope of the project and the potential it holds, that’s the bargain of the millennium right there.
10 It’s Guarded By A Lot Of Angry Polar Bears (Well, Not *REALLY*)
Now, that’s a Bond-villain-worthy concept if ever I’ve heard one: a top-secret base in the Arctic defended by ill-tempered and very bitey polar bears.
Much as I can appreciate that image, I have to disappoint you here and state that… well, there aren’t any polar bear guards, strictly speaking. You’re sure to come across some of these huge, noble creatures defending their territory, though.
As reported by Oceanwide Expeditions, polar bears outnumber people on the Svalbard archipelago. In 2004, the Norwegian Polar Institute estimated their numbers to be around 2,650-3,600, while human residents number only around 2,600 in total.
The bears’ numbers had increased by around 40% in the region, too, a follow-up study reported in 2015.
9 It’s Darn Quiet Around Here
Of the many reasons that the Svalbard peninsula was chosen for the vital scientific work, one that creator Cary Fowler pinpointed was its remoteness. You don’t want a lot of press attention, potential security risks and such, do you? You could very well be saving the world here, after all.
With that in mind, Svalbard couldn’t have been a better fit. Not only is it polar bears-amundo around here, but human settlements are few and far between in this inhospitable region. Some are inhabited only temporarily, during research trips, and Pyramiden… well, that’s a completely abandoned town.
Oceanwide Expeditions states that this used to be a busy mining community, purchased by the USSR back in 1927. It was abandoned in the late nineties, a casualty of Russia’s economic crisis.
8 There’s A Whiff Of SkyNet About The Whole Fully-Automated Thing
Maybe it’s just because I’m a huge fan of the Terminator movies (as you can surely tell, that’s the second reference to them that I’ve shoehorned into this piece), but something about processes that are totally automated just seems totally disturbing to me.
At the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, things aren’t quite that bad. Owing to the base’s huge implications for our future, though, certain steps have to be taken. The Atlantic explains the protocol:
“Security at the facility is state of the art and fully automated---there is no full-time staff and no single person has all the codes necessary for entrance. Nor is there much traffic inside, for new seeds are only accepted a few days a year.”
7 It’s Already Proven Its Crisis-Averting Chops
As we’ve seen so far, a lot of the aspects of the Svalbard Vault were prepared with the future in mind. Possible outcomes of natural disasters, our own mistreatment of the planet and such were taken into account when designing and building the facility.
That’s just the thing, though. A lot of it is exactly that: conjecture. Importantly, however, we’ve already seen how the Vault can step up to the plate in times of crisis. In 2015, as CNN reports, the vault was opened for the first time (in response to the conflict in Syria).
“ICARDA scientists need the seeds from Norway so they can plant and regenerate them at ICARDA facilities in Lebanon and Morocco,” the story of three years ago went. “With new seeds, they can resume the important research they've been doing for decades. They will replace what they had on ice in Norway with some of the newly generated seeds.”
6 My, Grandma, What A… Diverse Collection Of Crops You Have
The Doomsday Vault has been a super-ambitious project since the first thinktank, and the implications of it are only getting bigger and more important as time goes on. After all, this is a facility that may one day play host to “every crop seed ever used by a human being,” as The Atlantic reports. It’s an understatement to say that ambitious is an understatement.
Where do we currently stand, then? According to Crop Trust, The Svalbard Vault “represents the world’s largest collection of crop diversity.”
Because it’s a collaborative effort, it hosts a variety of samples far greater than any national collection, which is exactly how it earned its status as the gene bank to end all gene banks (which isn’t an official thing, I just made it up).
5 It’s Officially The Best Invention Since Pop Tarts
Or, you know, a different invention of your choosing. I’ve just always been a super-vocal Pop Tart supporter.
Never mind all of that, though. What really matters here is that there’s no denying the great worth, potential and scientific vision of the Svalbard Seed Vault. Quite rightly, it’s garnered a lot of praise around the world, but no other praise quite as flattering as this: As stated by Interesting Facts, the vault was rated sixth in TIME’s Best Inventions of 2008.
‘Retail DNA Tests’ topped the list that year, with Hulu.com and the Large Hadron Collider (pictured here) also making the top 5.
4 The Mysterious Black Box System
Clearly, the Doomsday Vault is not a place to play fast and loose with security. As we’ve already seen, it’s a safety deposit box sort of situation, where no staff member has all of the codes required and everything is heavily automated.
One curious element we haven’t taken a look at yet is the Black Box system. Seeds are stored in packages further secured inside boxes, and as the Crop Trust site reveals, “the Black Box System entails that the depositor is the only one that can withdraw the seeds and open the boxes.”
Like a couple of outstanding members of pigeon society at a bird feeder, then, there’ll be no messing with anyone else’s seeds here.
3 These Seeds Are Going NOWHERE, Friends
So, you wanted further evidence of the safety of the Doomsday Vault? How about this: nobody’s going to steal, tamper or mess with anything because… well, there’s dang well nobody here.
Automation is one thing, but this is taking it to a whole new level. The natural climate means that, even if refrigeration units fail, the seeds will be kept at a super-chill -3 celsius (the temperature of the surrounding area). Should the power fail in the vault entirely, the same applies. Additionally, as we know, the vault is high enough to be unaffected by rising sea levels in the future.
All in all, as Five Guys Facts concludes,
“It is believed that the above factors mean that, even in the absence of any human activity whatsoever, the vault could keep most seeds biologically capable for hundreds or, in some cases, thousands of years.”
2 The Great Leaky-Water Incident Of 2017
With everything we’ve heard about the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in mind, it’s tough to see how the collection could really face any kind of threats at all. Nevertheless, sometimes, Mother Nature is determined to find the tiniest little possibility of ruining your day.
Last year, as a result of record temperatures in the Arctic, melting ice saw the entrance to the vault flooding. No harm was done and the inner vault wasn’t breached by the water, Five Guys Facts reports, “but the entrance to the vault was heavily iced over as the melted permafrost re-froze and made the entrance like a glacier.”
Technicians have since been working on the vault’s waterproofing to prevent a repeat of the incident, but that’s a little frightening.
1 You Can Take A VR Tour
If all of this has piqued your interest in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, here’s some great news: You can take a VR tour of the complex, right there in your browser.
You can access it through Crop Trust right here, and it’s a fascinating insight into one of the world’s remotest and inaccessible yet scientifically-significant places.
The very fact that there’s a VR tour neatly summarises everything about the vault. At its core, it caters to our simplest, most low-tech need of all: food, but utilises a lot of fancy technology to defend it. Check it out for yourself.
Resources: We Add Up, Live Science, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Crop Trust, Five Guys Facts (Medium), Oceanwide Expeditions, Interesting Facts, The Atlantic, CNN.