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‘Doomsday Vault’ Prepares to Open

One of the things I like about Norway is that the government there requires at least one percent of public building budgets be devoted to artwork. Thus the plan for the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which is designed as a hedge against planetary catastrophe. At the Spitsbergen site near the town of Longyearbyen, highly polished metal sheets installed on the roof and front of the entrance portal will create a sparkling sculpture visible for miles around, lit by the Sun or by fiber-optics during the long Arctic winters.

Town of Longyearbyen

I would imagine Norwegian artist Dyveke Sanne took the commission as quite a challenge. How do you capture the spirit of what is essentially a fail-safe backup of the world’s vital food crops? Assume for a moment that we do get a massive blow one day from an Earth-crossing asteroid and our survivors, provided there are some, will want to re-start agriculture with the basic crops — wheat, barley, peas, corn. And not just the basics, for it may be necessary to start over again in almost any part of the world.

Image: The town of Longyearbyen, near the site of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Credit: Heidi Eriksen, Ministry of Agriculture and Food.

The site on the Svalbard archipelago can hold up to 4.5 million seed samples, meaning almost every variety of food crops on the planet can find a home there. The trick is to keep the seeds safe for centuries, up to a thousand years. In mid-November, the site began the crucial cooling down phase preparatory to its official opening early next year, using a 30 kilowtt refrigeration system brought over from the mainland. Over the next two months, the temperature of the sandstone rock around the vault will drop from the current -5 degrees Celsius to -18 degrees.

Magnus Bredeli Tveiten works with Statsbygg, the Norwegian government’s Directorate of Public Construction. Having surveyed the project from top to bottom, the Seed Vault’s project manager is confident of the result. “We ran a lot of computer simulations to determine the optimum approach and believe we have found a very effective and especially energy efficient way to establish reliably cool conditions inside the vault,” says Tveiten. “We believe the design of the facility will ensure that the seeds will stay well-preserved even if such forces as global warming raise temperatures outside the facility.”

It’s a remote place, this doomsday vault, located at the end of a 120-meter tunnel blasted into a mountain on what is surely one of the least accessible populated places on the planet. Long-term cooling will be maintained by natural permafrost, snow and ice, supplemented by a 10 kilowatt refrigeration system once the target temperatures are reached. With Spitsbergen now into its three month night, cooling should proceed without difficulty. As to that artwork, consider it a monument to human foresight, a marker for a resource we may hope we’ll never have to use in the kind of emergency it seeks to ameliorate.

A long way from Svalbard to Centauri? Perhaps, but bear in mind that the first priority of a space-based infrastructure — the kind that will eventually produce the technologies that make at least robotic interstellar missions possible — is to protect the most precious asset we have, our own planet. While we wrangle over Arecibo funding and question whether we should spend the money to identify dangerous asteroids, the Svalbard project is a case of taking the long view in case we’re foolish enough to let our environment be destroyed.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Steve November 21, 2007, 21:23

    “One of the things I like about Norway is that the government there requires at least one percent of public building budgets be devoted to artwork.”

    We can beat that, in my home state of Queensland, Australia, it’s two percent!

  • Administrator November 21, 2007, 22:34

    Well done, Queensland!

  • Adam November 22, 2007, 4:48

    Hi Steve

    As a fellow Banana-bender I have to wonder why I haven’t noticed the Government’s investment in Big Art. Though the Brisbane City Council’s artistic spheres near the new Council building are pretty big. Gigantic collanders they remind me of.

  • djlactin November 22, 2007, 6:13

    a sci-fi scenario that i find kind of amusing: earth gets smacked. small group of survivors in … oooh say … mozambique… starving… sez one “oh, I know! there’s a cache of food grain seeds on svalbard. let’s go!”

  • Administrator November 22, 2007, 9:29

    Adam, of course this is the down side of much public art — it’s often chosen by committee! Examples here in the US abound. Let’s hope the Svalbard installation does better, the irony being that few will ever see it.

  • Administrator November 22, 2007, 9:31

    I like djlactin’s idea. It has the feel of one of those post-apocalyptic British disaster novels of the 60’s era, a long trek in search of a way to restore at least some aspects of civilization. I’m remembering John Christopher’s The Jagged Edge as I write this. though djlactin’s plot would take place on a much larger scale.

  • andy November 22, 2007, 10:58

    Well, this plan isn’t quite as ridiculous as the proposal to store the DNA of various species in a vault on the moon. DNA is not enough to create an organism: you need all the associated biological mechanisms as well. It’s like trying to store the world’s musical heritage by storing a vast library of CDs, but failing to store any details of how to make a CD player.

  • Ron S November 22, 2007, 12:23

    Hopefully the plot will have the trekkers do better than the British Hecla expedition did in 1827. An extract from the book Barrow’s Boys on how they tried to reach Spitsbergen Island (where the seed vault is located) across the ice floes that blocked the coast: “…the image of reindeer-drawn boats manned by extraordinary collection of elves dressed in racoon-skin caps, hooded jackets and blue trousers with white, knee-high canvas gaiters…” These ‘boats’ were 1450 lbs each with detachable wheels. They sunk in the snow to their axles and wouldn’t budge no matter how enthusiastically the reindeer were encouraged.

    If this sci-fi expedition to the seed vault from the tropics is written as a comedy something like this might fit in well. Have a happy Thanksgiving.

  • ljk January 25, 2008, 10:07

    Seeds From the Four Corners of the World to be Stored in the Arctic “Doomsday” Vault

    Bad things will continue to happen in the future as they have in the past. To what extent is unknown. Cambridge phycisist Sir Martin Rees gives humanity only a 50/50 chance of making it through the century. With such unfriendly odds, Norway has given a beautiful gift to the future of the world. No matter what happens to us in the next hundreds of years, our life-sustaining seeds will be kept safe for whatever generations may come.

    The Arctic Seed Vault, also known as the Doomsday Vault was created as a repository of last resort for humanity’s crop genes. It aims to safeguard the world’s edible plant genes from future catastrophes like nuclear war, asteroids and climate change. The thousands of seeds contributed by Global Network of Agricultural Research Centers are now on their way to the completed vault. Permafrost and thick rock will ensure that even with lost electricity, the samples will remain frozen at well below freezing temperatures.

    The high tech bank is fenced in and guarded, with steel airlock doors, motion detectors and polar bears roaming outside. All of this backs up the claim that this concrete facility is “the most secure building of its type in the world”.

    Norway’s Agriculture Minister Terje Riis-Johansen calls the vault “Noah’s Ark on Svalbard.”

    The vault was built by the Norwegian government as a service to the world, and a Rome-based international NGO, the Global Crop Diversity Trust, will fund its operation. The vault will officially open on February 26, 2008.

    “We need to understand that genebanks are not seed museums but the repositories of vital, living resources that are used almost every day in the never-ending battle against major threats to food production,” Bioversity International’s Frison said. “We’re going to need this diversity to breed new varieties that can adapt to climate change, new diseases and other rapidly emerging threats.”

    Full article here:


  • ljk February 2, 2008, 8:22

    Biological Moon Shot: Realizing the dream of a Web page for
    every living thing

    The first entries–with the basics for a mere 30,000 species–
    in the Web-based Encyclopedia of Life are scheduled for
    release in a matter of weeks.


  • ljk February 27, 2008, 9:59

    Seeds of Future Agriculture Enter Doomsday Deep Freeze

    Scientific American Feb. 26, 2008


    The first batch of 100 million of
    the most important agricultural
    seeds were placed into the “doomsday
    repository” Svalbard Global Seed
    Vault in Norway. The vault is a
    backup of last resort, stocked with
    copies of different crops from
    national seed storage facilities. In
    cold isolation the seeds can keep
    for hundreds and thousands of…


    The Encyclopedia of Life, No Bookshelf Required

    New York Times Feb. 26, 2008


    Scientists are building a Web site
    called the Encyclopedia of Life,
    dedicated to documenting all species
    on Earth. Spearheaded by Harvard
    biologist Edward O. Wilson with $50
    million initial funding, the first
    30,000 pages will be introduced on
    Thursday this week. Within a decade,
    they predict, they will have the
    other 1.77 million….


  • ljk March 9, 2008, 23:00

    Mankind’s secrets kept in lunar ark


    From The Sunday Times

    March 9, 2008

    Maurice Chittenden

    IF civilisation is wiped out on Earth, salvation may come from space. Plans
    are being drawn up for a “Doomsday ark” on the moon containing the
    essentials of life and civilisation, to be activated in the event of earth
    being devastated by a giant asteroid or nuclear war.

    Construction of a lunar information bank, discussed at a conference in
    Strasbourg last month, would provide survivors on Earth with a remote-access
    toolkit to rebuild the human race.

    A basic version of the ark would contain hard discs holding information such
    as DNA sequences and instructions for metal smelting or planting crops. It
    would be buried in a vault just under the lunar surface and transmitters
    would send the data to heavily protected receivers on earth. If no receivers
    survived, the ark would continue transmitting the information until new ones
    could be built.

    The vault could later be extended to include natural material including
    microbes, animal embryos and plant seeds and even cultural relics such as
    surplus items from museum stores.

    As a first step to discovering whether living organisms could survive,
    European Space Agency scientists are hoping to experiment with growing
    tulips on the moon within the next decade.

    According to Bernard Foing, chief scientist at the agency’s research
    department, the first flowers – tulips or arabidopsis, a plant widely used
    in research – could be grown in 2012 or 2015.

    “Eventually, it will be necessary to have a kind of Noah’s ark there, a
    diversity of species from the biosphere,” said Foing.

    Tulips are ideal because they can be frozen, transported long distances and
    grown with little nourishment. Combined with algae, an enclosed artificial
    atmosphere and chemically enhanced lunar soil, they could form the basis of
    an ecosystem.

    The first experiments would be carried out in transparent biospheres
    containing a mix of gases to mimic the earth’s atmosphere. Carbon dioxide
    given off by the decomposing plants would be mopped up by the algae, which
    would generate oxygen through photosynthesis.

    The databank would initially be run by robots and linked to earth by radio
    transmissions. Scientists hope to put a manned station on the moon before
    the end of the century.

    The databank would need to be buried under rock to protect it from the
    extreme temperatures, radiation and vacuum on the moon. It would be run
    partly on solar power. The scientists envisage placing the first
    experimental databank on the moon no later than 2020 and it could have a
    lifespan of 30 years. The full archive would be launched by 2035.

    The information would be held in Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian
    and Spanish and would be linked by transmitter to 4,000 “Earth repositories”
    that would provide shelter, food, a water supply for survivors.

  • ljk May 19, 2010, 12:53

    Europeans Bury ‘Digital DNA’ Inside Mountain Stronghold

    PC May 18, 2010

    In a secret bunker known as the
    Swiss Fort Knox deep in the Swiss
    Alps, European researchers on
    Tuesday deposited a “digital genome”
    that will provide the blueprint for
    future generations to read data
    stored using defunct technology.

    The project hopes to preserve “data
    DNA,” the information and tools to
    access and read historical digital…


  • ljk July 16, 2011, 22:44

    Food Ark

    A crisis is looming: To feed our growing population, we’ll need to double food production. Yet crop yields aren’t increasing fast enough, and climate change and new diseases threaten the limited varieties we’ve come to depend on for food. Luckily we still have the seeds and breeds to ensure our future food supply—but we must take steps to save them.


  • ljk December 18, 2012, 15:44

    To quote:

    One international organisation that has done wonders here and that deserves five or six heavy pats on the back is the Ark of Taste.


    AoT is an offspring of Slow Food, the voguish and politically hip fair trade, fun eating movement. But the AoT is more serious than its right-on and slightly overweight parents. AoT activists have dedicated themselves to saving both domesticated animal species (pigs, cows, goats…) and crops and fruits that are going or that risk going the way of the dodo.

    For example, passing to Spain on their page of retrieved plants they have cataloged and protected such things as Asturian Spelt Wheat, Belltall Garlic and Nabarnizko Arbia, a Basque cabbage. Some of these are endangered rather than lost. The Belltall Garlic is grown by about twelve (!) families in one corner of Catalonia so it has not exactly come back from the dead.

    Full article here: