The vault's coordinator said it's part of a global gene bank — but it's not a "doomsday vault."
The public is not allowed inside the vault, but pictures below show what it's like inside.
Located approximately 400 feet deep inside a mountain on a remote island between mainland Norway and the North Pole, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault houses duplicates of over 1.1 million seed varieties from almost every country in the world.
Although it's been called a doomsday vault before, it's not, according to Åsmund Asdal, the seed vault's coordinator.
"It's not something that is prepared or made for a remote future after doomsday," he said.
"It's an active part of a global gene bank," Asdal explained, adding that gene banks conserve and distribute seeds to breeders, researchers, and farmers. "These are unique genetic resources. If they lose the seeds they have at home, the genetic codes will be lost forever."
Asdal, who visits the vault three to four times a year to organize seed transports to the vault, said it's strongly recommended that copies of seeds are kept in more places. Svalbard is one of the places to deposit copies of seeds.
Access to the vault is highly restricted. It's not open to the public, but you can see what it's like below:
Svalbard is the northernmost place in the world that still has scheduled flights, according to The Crop Trust, the group in charge of the global seed-bank system.
A misunderstanding people have about the vault is that it's cold inside because it's buried in permafrost. "The permafrost in the mountains and rocks and soil in Svalbard provides minus three, minus four degrees, but we have additional cooling systems," Asdal said.
After the seeds arrive, they're scanned in a security system at the airport to make sure there's nothing but seeds inside the boxes. Then, Asdal labels the boxes, and places them on shelves throughout the vault. The information for the seeds is entered into a database that is publicly accessible, Asdal said.
Accompanying Asdal in the vault is usually one of his colleagues at the Nordic Genetic Resource Center, and a representative from the governmental bureau that looks after public property in Svalbard. They spend between one to three hours in the vault.
That way, the genetic diversity of crops around the world is kept safe.
It's minus 18 degrees Celsius inside the seed vault, and during the winter it's cold outside too, so Asdal said it's important to dress properly to work in and outside of the vault. Asdal said where he lives can also have negative temperatures, so he can wear the same clothes when he visits the vault.
In the summer, the temperature in Svalbard is around 0 degrees Celsius, and sometimes can be up to 10 degrees celsius. "There is some vegetation, some flowers, some grass, that reindeer can grass on," Asdal said.
Inside, seeds are moved to a trolley and rolled into the vault's main chamber. Depending on the workload, Asdal said he can keep warm inside the vault if he's more physical. "If you're working with something, just paperwork, something not physically hard, we freeze sooner," he said. "Then we have to go out and warm up then go back in again."
That showed that the vault could serve its function, but hopefully there will be no need for another withdrawal in the near future. "It illustrates why we built it," Cary Fowler tells my colleague Lydia Ramsey. "Loss of that collection would be irreplaceable. ... I tell people it's a great story — a sad story — of the seed vault functioning as an insurance policy."
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