Architectural Plan Revealed of Doomsday
Arctic Seed Vault
“Noah’s Ark” for Seeds Designed to Outlast
Rise in Sea Level and Warming of Permafrost
OSLO, NORWAY (9 February
2007)—The Norwegian government has revealed the
architectural design for the Svalbard International Seed Vault,
to be carved deep into frozen rock on an island not far from the
North Pole. The entrance to the “fail-safe” seed vault will
“gleam like a gem in the midnight sun,” signaling a priceless
treasure within: seed samples of nearly every food crop of every
country. The vault is designed to protect the agricultural
heritage of humankind—the seeds essential to agriculture of
design takes us one step closer to guaranteeing the safety of
the world’s most important natural resource,” said Dr. Cary
Fowler, Executive Director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust,
which will co-fund the vault’s operations and pay for the
preparation and transport of seeds from all developing nations
to the Arctic island of Svalbard. “Every day that passes we lose
crop biodiversity. We must conserve the seeds that will allow
agriculture to adapt to challenges such as climate change and
crop disease. This design is as awesome physically as it is
attractive aesthetically, and both are fitting tributes to the
importance of the biological treasure to be stored there.”
Artist concept of vault design
(Drawing courtesy of The
Global Crop Diversity Trust 2006 / Statsbygg)
Construction is slated to begin
in March 2007 and to be completed in September 2007. The vault
will officially open in late winter 2008.
"By investing in a global
permafrost safety facility for seeds, the Norwegian Government
hopes to contribute to combating the loss of biological
diversity, to reduce our vulnerability to climatic changes, and
to enhance our ability to secure future food production,” said
Mr. Terje Riis-Johansen, Minister of Agriculture and Food,
The site was chosen, in part,
because the ground is perpetually frozen, providing natural
back-up refrigeration that would preserve the seeds should
electricity fail. Yet, even here, project architects had to
consider how to offset the potential impacts of climate change.
will accommodate even worst-case scenarios of global warming in
two main ways. For one, the vault will be located high above any
possible rise in sea level caused by global warming: the vault
will be located some 130 metres above current sea level,
ensuring that it will not be flooded. This puts it well above a
seven metre rise that would accompany the melting of Greenland’s
ice sheet, or even a 61 metre rise that could accompany an
unlikely total meltdown of Antarctica.
scientists determined the impact of rising air temperatures on
the permafrost, which is normally between -4°C and -6°C (24.8°F
and 21.2°F). They found that the permafrost would warm much more
slowly than the air. In addition, the deeper into the mountain,
the colder it will remain. Therefore, the vault will be located
an extraordinary 120 metres into the rock, ensuring that rising
external air temperatures will have no influence on the
“Even climate change over the
next 200 years will not significantly affect the permafrost
temperature,” says project manager Magnus Bredeli Tveiten, with
Statsbygg, the Norwegian government’s Directorate of Public
Construction and Property.
To accomplish this, the
120-metre entry tunnel will penetrate through the permafrost,
opening to two large chambers capable of holding three million
seed samples. The tunnel and vaults will be excavated by means
of well-known boring and blasting techniques, with the rock
walls sprayed with concrete.
In contrast to this utilitarian
interior, “the exterior structure shoots out of the
mountainside,” Tveiten said. The entrance portal will be a
narrow triangular structure of cement and metal, illuminated
with artwork which changes according to the special lighting
conditions of the Arctic. In the summer months, the entrance
“will gleam like a gem in the midnight sun,” Tveiten says.
Throughout the dark winter, when the sun never rises, it will
glow with gently changing lights.
The design also reflects of the
project’s approach to security.
“We decided early on that there
is no point in trying to hide this facility from the public,”
Tveiten said. “Instead we will rely on its presence being
well-known in the local community, so if the public sees
something suspicious, they will react to it.”
Other security measures include
several sets of reinforced doors between the entrance and the
chambers, the absence of windows, and a video monitoring system.
Riis-Johansen emphasized the
vault’s importance to the world community. “From a global
perspective the emphasis is on assisting developing countries by
offering a safe haven for their valuable biological material. I
also hope that the interest that is shown in the Svalbard Arctic
Seed Vault will create increased awareness for the need for
conservation and sustainable use of our genetic resources.”
Arctic seed vault is part of a comprehensive global strategy
being implemented by the Global Crop Diversity Trust to protect
collections of crop genetic diversity around the world.
information on the architectural design contact: Magnus Bredeli
Tveiten, Project Manager, Statsbygg: + 47 22 95 42 22 (o) + 47
91 17 94 41 (m).
Crop Diversity Trust (www.croptrust.org)
of the Trust is to ensure the conservation and availability of
crop diversity for food security worldwide. Although crop
diversity is fundamental to fighting hunger and to the very
future of agriculture, funding is unreliable and diversity is
being lost. The Trust is the only organization working worldwide
to solve this problem. The Trust is finalizing an agreement with
the Royal Ministry of Agriculture and Food of Norway and the
Nordic Gene Bank to provide for the long-term funding,
management and operation of the vault.
Simple Answers to Basic Questions
What is a gene bank?
It is a facility for
maintaining crop diversity. Usually, this diversity is in the
form of seeds, stored and conserved in a frozen state. Some gene
banks use normal household freezers for this purpose. The ideal
temperature is between -10 and -20C. Each different type is
stored in its own container, such as a bottle, can, or a sealed
aluminum foil package.
How many gene banks are there?
The Food and Agriculture
Organization of the UN lists about 1400 collections, ranging in
size from a single sample to the U.S. collection with 464,000
different samples. Major genebanks include those in China,
Russia, Japan, India, S. Korea, Germany and Canada (in that
order) as well as those operated by Centers of the Consultative
Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).
How many samples do gene banks currently house?
Approximately 6.5 million
collectively. Some 1-2 million are estimated to be “distinct.”
Once the Svalbard Global Seed Vault (SGSV) becomes fully
operational, we would expect it to become the largest single
collection in the world. It will have a capacity of 3 million
samples, giving ample room to accommodate all existing diversity
plus new variation as it arises in the future.
Who uses gene banks?
Plant breeders and
researchers are the major users of gene banks. The diversity
stored in gene banks is the raw material for plant breeding and
for a great deal of basic biological research. Several hundred
thousand samples are distributed annually for such purposes.
Is it really necessary to conserve so many different crop
Different types have
different characteristics, not all of which are visible to the
eye – genetic traits that provide disease resistance,
adaptability to various soils and climates, different tastes and
nutritional qualities. If we ever need to use the potentially
unique and sometimes hidden traits found in a particular
variety, then we must conserve the variety - for as long as we
want that option. So, the simple answer is “Yes!”.
What are the threats to gene banks and their collections?
The biggest threat
probably comes from lack of secure funding. Poor management can
also be a major problem. In addition, gene banks are subject to
natural disasters, wars and civil strife, accidents, etc. SGSV
provides insurance against all of these as well as larger and
more catastrophic events.
How many varieties have been lost?
It is impossible to know,
since there is no way of ascertaining how many different types
have existed in the past. But, surely, much diversity has
already been lost. Of the 7100 named varieties of apples grown
in the U.S. in the 1800s, more than 6800 no longer exist.
Extinction is forever. Different varieties of wheat and potato
can disappear as permanently as the dinosaurs.
What kinds of seed will be stored in Svalbard?
Initially at least, all
types of seed of the different food crops. There are, for
example, more than 100,000 different kinds of rice. We would
hope that SGSV would have a package of seeds of each of these
Will the Svalbard Global Seed Vault store GMOs?
GMOs only exist in a few
crops, so for now, and for most crops the answer is “No.” The
likelihood of their being present in the collections that will
sent for storage to Svalbard ranges from zero to miniscule at
most. However, some could eventually be stored there. Is it a
problem? No matter whether you love, hate or have a neutral
attitude towards GMOs, you have to consider that all seed will
be stored in sealed aluminum packages, in boxes, behind locked
doors, near the North Pole. If there is danger, it would be
associated with their use in the environment and the food
system, not with their existence in a frozen state in the Seed
How safe and secure will the seeds be in the Seed Vault?
They will be as safe as
they can be. The Seed Vault will be the most secure conservation
facility in the world by several orders of magnitude. The
conditions for the long-term conservation of the seed will be
the best possible.
Could the Seed Vault survive a direct hit from a nuclear bomb?
Perhaps not. But it will
almost surely withstand just about any other danger.
How long can seeds live in a frozen state?
It varies with the crop.
Some crops, such as peas, may only survive for 20-30 years. But
other crops, such as sunflowers and some of the grains may
survive for many decades or even hundreds of years. Eventually,
all seeds will lose the ability to germinate – they’ll die.
Before this happens, a few seeds are taken from the stored
sample and planted. Fresh, new seed is then harvested and placed
in storage. This way, the original variety can be perpetuated,
What is the Global Crop Diversity Trust and how is it connected
to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault?
The Trust is a unique
organization with the sole international mandate to ensure the
conservation of crop diversity in perpetuity. The Trust is
assembling a fund, the income from which will be used to support
the long-term conservation and availability of this diversity
for the international community. The Trust expects to provide
support for the ongoing operations of the SGSV, and to provide
funding for the preparation and shipment of seeds from
developing countries to the facility. Professor Cary Fowler,
Executive Secretary of the Global Crop Diversity Trust headed
the international committee that assessed the feasibility of
establishing the Seed Vault.
The Trust believes that
the facility in Svalbard will provide a global safety net for
agriculture ensuring that even if a catastrophe strikes a
particular gene bank, or many gene banks, our irreplaceable
heritage of crop diversity will not be lost for future
For More Information About
The importance of
conserving crop diversity / the challenges / the crops / the
institutions involved / initiatives to ensure conservation / The
Global Crop Diversity Trust