Global Seed Vault Gets Its Millionth Donation and a $13 Million Update

Built in 1998, the vault safeguards the world’s food storage in case of a global disaster

Svalbard Global Seed Vault
The latest donation to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is taken down into the frosty underground chamber for storage. Crop Trust

Buried deep within a mountain in Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago east of Greenland, is a repository of seeds and plants stored as a backup in case of global disaster. Since Norway opened the vault 10 years ago, hundreds of thousands of donations have poured in. Now, its getting its millionth donation—and a makeover. 

As Helen Briggs of BBC News reports, the vault accepted a delivery Monday of more than 70,000 crops that will take it to its one million donation mark. Deposits include unique varieties of rice, black-eyed peas, and Bambara groundnut (a drought-tolerant crop).

The seeds will be added to the growing collection that resides in the frosty underground digs, which will soon get a pricey update. As Alister Doyle reports for Reuters, the upgrades, which will cost around $13 million, will include construction of a concrete access tunnel, a service building for emergency power and refrigerating units and other electrical equipment.

Keeping the vault updated has proven essential. The structure was designed to withstand earthquakes and nuclear war, but as Briggs notes, the vault’s entrance was flooded last year after a bout of extreme weather. Though frosty seeds inside weren't harmed by the deluge, Matthew Diebel writes for USA Today, the Norwegian government decided to make some changes to withstand what may lie ahead. New waterproof walls and reinforcements will now protect the vault against potential water damage.

In 1998, Norway spent $9 million to build the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in an abandoned coal mine, Diebel writes. The facility is 426 feet above sea level, according to Natasha Frost of Atlas Obscura, and is challenging to access on its far-flung, frosty island.

It now stores 1,059,646 deposits — from Estonian onion potato to barley used to brew Irish beer. Such crop diversity is essential to safeguard against the potential impacts of climate change, giving scientists the best chance to ensure future generations to thrive.​ Researchers used about 90,000 seeds from the vault for the first time in 2015 after war in Syria caused damage to a seed bank near Aleppo, Frost writes. Most have now been replaced.

Hannes Dempewolf, senior scientist of the Crop Trust, dedicated to conserving the diversity of food crops, tells Briggs: "Hitting the million mark is really significant. Only a few years back I don't think we would have thought that we would get there."

Scientists think that more than 2 million unique crop varieties will eventually be deposited at Svalbard, Briggs reports. The vault opens just twice a year for deposits. 

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.