The Bank at the Top of the World

Glacier ice covers 60% of the land in the wondrous Svalbard archipelago, which lies between Norway and the North Pole in a region where six months of darkness are followed by six months of light. The rocks here encase incredible geological and paleontological treasures and more than a thousand polar bears wander the ice. Despite a surge in tourism, this place is still a refuge for the bear. But there is something else in Svalbard.

By:  Ángela Posada-Swafford
Photos : Crop Trust, CIAT, Ángela Posada-Swafford

Buried in the permafrost of a mountainside on the island of Spitsbergen is the Global Seed Vault, which serves as a backup for the entire planet’s agricultural biodiversity…just in case. Located in the middle of nowhere, the vault can resist bombs, nuclear missiles, meteorites, fires, earthquakes, floods, terrorism, and of course, the adverse effects of the climate crisis. Constructed in 2008, Norway’s continuing maintenance of this repository is a gift to the world. They work to ensure that the vault will resist the effects of global warming in the Arctic.

The entrance to the Global Seed Vault feels like the doorway to another dimension. The cavern has the capacity to store 4.5 million varieties of crops. For each variety there will be 500 seeds on average, for a maximum of 2.5 billion seeds. The purpose is to safeguard as much as possible of the genetic diversity of the plants that feed us before they are lost entirely. In the future, the vault will also store the cousins and wild ancestors of as many seeds as possible.

Inside, protected by two airlocks at the end of a tunnel that dips more than 500 feet under the frozen mountain, there are three chambers kept at a constant – 0.4 ºF; the doors wear a coat of ice. Only the center chamber is currently in use, storing samples of nearly one million varieties of seeds of beans, corn, wheat, rice, sorghum, barley, lettuce, lentils, potatoes, and peas, among others.


The shelves of the Global Seed Vault hold 13,000 years of the history of agriculture packed in plastic boxes, rather like a United Nations of the plant kingdom. Once or twice a year, producer countries send a cargo of seeds to this exotic bank. It is an encouraging sign of international cooperation to see boxes from North Korea alongside those from South Korea, the United States, and Russia.

This repository has already demonstrated its value many times. The Philippines national seed bank was destroyed by a fire and flooding. Likewise, seed repositories in Afghanistan were destroyed during recent wars. In 2015, Syrian germplasm banks in Aleppo, which contained valuable heat-resistant wheat seeds, were wiped off the map. These countries were able to turn to Svalbard and withdraw their frozen samples, enabling them to recoup their lost assets.

The vault is the endpoint of a plant journey that begins far away. For example, in the case of Colombian beans, the process begins near the warm-weather city of Palmira, headquarters of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT). One of CIAT’s most urgent research tasks is to create varieties resistant to climate change and research issues like the death of pollen from heat or the resistance of roots to hurricane winds. These special seeds will later be sent to Svalbard.

At the CIAT, the seed is taken from the cold room every few years, planted, and tended. The resulting product is dried and threshed and the seeds are removed and inspected to ensure that they are unwrinkled and free of spots and insect bore-holes. Once 2,000 of the best seeds have been collected, they are sent to the Health Inspection Lab to verify the absence of infestation or disease, and to the Viability Lab, where they are subjected to destructive tests to determine the quality. The remaining seeds are taken to a drying room, where their moisture content is slowly reduced to 5%.

After lab results have confirmed that the seeds are in good condition, they are vacuum-packed in plastic aluminum bags and stored in the cold room. Twice a year, they are packed into plastic boxes and flown to Norway, where employees of the Global Seed Vault use them to replace seeds that are about to expire. CIAT is one of the international centers that make the largest number of deposits per year in Svalbard, not only to replace old seeds, but to add new varieties that spring from work in genetics.