'Doomsday Vault' Surpasses One Million Seed Samples After Huge Deposit As Facility Grapples With Climate Change

A large deposit to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault has taken the number of seed samples stored at the facility to more than a million.

The so-called "doomsday vault"—located on a remote Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean around 620 miles from the North Pole—is the largest backup of seeds on Earth, providing the ultimate insurance policy for humanity's food supply.

On Tuesday, representatives from 35 international and regional seedbanks—as well as other institutions—deposited more than 60,000 seed samples, the largest addition since the opening of the vault in 2008 in terms of the number of contributors. Each sample in the vault contains around 500 seeds. And the facility has space for about 4.5 million samples in total.

The latest addition means the number of seed samples at the facility—which is owned by the Norwegian government—has risen to around 1.05 million, up from roughly 990,000.

Cierra Martin, a spokesperson for the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which helps operate the facility, told Newsweek: "The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is a secure backup facility for the seed banks of the world. Many seed banks—while engaged in the vitally important work of seed conservation and use—suffer from inadequate funding, political instability or the risk of catastrophic natural disasters. The Vault provides secure storage for their seeds. Depositors to the Seed Vault still own the samples that they deposit and only they can retrieve the material if required."

The latest deposit at the Svalbard vault is the first since the completion of a major technical upgrade in 2019, which was initiated in response to flooding from melting permafrost in 2017. During the flooding, meltwater made its way into the access tunnel, although it froze before entering the vault itself.

In response, the Norwegian government has spent around $21 million upgrading the facility, equipping it with a new waterproof access tunnel, improved cooling system and other security measures to prepare for a future where climate change is only expected to increase melting in the world's permafrost regions.

The vault is built into the rock on one of Svalbard's islands and is artificially cooled to around -18 degrees Celsius. If the power supply were to fail, the facility is encased in permafrost meaning that the seeds should still be preserved.

"As the pace of climate change and biodiversity loss increases, there is new urgency surrounding efforts to save food crops at risk of extinction," Stefan Schmitz, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which helps operate the facility, said in a statement.

"The large scope of today's seed deposit reflects worldwide concern about the impacts of climate change and biodiversity loss on food production, but more importantly it demonstrates a growing global commitment—from the institutions and countries that have made deposits today and indeed the world—to the conservation and use of the crop diversity that is crucial for farmers in their efforts to adapt to changing growing conditions," he said.

Svalbard Global Seed Vault
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway. Riccardo Gangale/Svalbard Global Seed Vault

In the latest deposit of seeds, several hundred different plant varieties were added to the vault, including common staple crops, vegetables and herbs. Among the notable additions were wild emmer wheat deposited by the University of Haifa, Israel, several potato varieties donated by Peru's International Potato Center, and 27 wild plant species from Highgrove estate in England—which is owned by British royal family member Prince Charles.

In addition, the Cherokee Nation also donated nine culturally important seed varieties—such as white eagle corn and candy roaster squash—which predate the arrival of Europeans in the Americas. This is first time that an Indigenous Native American tribe from the United States has made a deposit to the vault.

"Generations from now, these seeds will still hold our history and there will always be a part of the Cherokee Nation in the world," Chuck Hoskin Jr., Cherokee Nation Principal Chief, said in a statement.

Prior to the latest deposit, the vault had actually received more than one million samples over the course of its history. However, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) made three withdrawals in 2015, 2017 and 2019, taking out more than a hundred thousand samples which were originally deposited by the ICARDA seed bank in Aleppo, Syria.

As the Syrian civil war raged in 2015, ICARDA was forced to make the initial withdrawal—the first ever from the vault—to replace those held in the Aleppo seedbank, which was not able to operate at the time. The seeds were sent to to new ICARDA locations in Morocco and Lebanon.