The Svalbard Global Seed Vault

In the World's Northernmost Town, Crops Get Eternal Life

In the Svalbard archipelago, over 600 miles north of Norway, the sun doesn’t set between April and August. From October until February, on the other hand, it doesn’t appear at all. As one of the closest landmasses to the North Pole, it may seem an inhospitable climate for all but the most resilient of miners or fishermen. Near the northerly town of Longyearbyen on the island of Spitsbergen, however, the agricultural equivalent of Noah’s Ark is nestled in the side of a snow-covered mountain. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault––photographed here exclusively for NOWNESS by Greg White––was established in 2008 with the intention of preserving diversity in crops from around the world. Although many countries have their own gene banks, they are not insusceptible to disaster: national seed banks in Afghanistan and Pakistan have succumbed to looting, while in the Philippines a vault was destroyed by a typhoon. In light of this, in 2004 a call was made by the Global Crop Diversity Trust to house a complete collection of seeds from around the world in a centralized stable environment. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault was the result, with the archipelago chosen in part due to the permafrost that would safeguard against any electrical failures in the cooling device (seeds are chilled to -18C). With a goal of storing the roughly three million unique seed samples in gene banks worldwide (the bean alone has around 30,000 varieties; wheat has about 200,000), the vault has already accrued half a million varieties of crops. But as Professor Roland von Bothmer, the manager of these deposits, says with a chuckle: “Nothing is ever complete in this world!”
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