Today, the so-called “doomsday” vault in Norway is taking in its biggest deposit of seeds since vital upgrades in 2019. The deposit will feature over 60,000 seed samples from 36 different groups — the most to send their seeds to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault at one time. That includes the Cherokee Nation, the first tribe based in the US to make a deposit. Departments of agriculture from Thailand, the US, and Ireland and universities and research centers from Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Lebanon, and elsewhere will make contributions as well.
The Vault was built to safeguard the DNA of the world’s crops in order to ensure a diversity of species and that there’s always enough food on the planet for people to eat. Any number of disasters — from floods to wars and power outages — could leave seeds in more than 1,700 regional gene banks around the world vulnerable. So many of them keep backup copies at Svalbard. Climate change is bringing new urgency to efforts to save these food crops, according to the international nonprofit organization Crop Trust. The nonprofit manages the vault in partnership with the Norwegian Ministry of Agriculture and Food and the Nordic Genetic Resource Centre.
“Certainly, [climate change] is an enormous concern for global agriculture,” says Hannes Dempewolf, head of global initiatives at Crop Trust. Beyond preserving a wide range of species, the seeds within seed banks might also help plant breeders produce crops that are more resilient to emerging pests, diseases, and the effects of climate change. Crops of the future may need to be more tolerant to drought, high temperatures, and saltier soil (as a result of sea-level rise).
The Cherokee Nation is depositing nine seed varieties that predate European colonization. The tribe maintains its own seed bank with heirloom plants — species that are important to its history, culture, and traditions. The tribe’s most sacred corn and oldest heirloom variety, the Cherokee White Eagle Corn will be deposited. During the Trail of Tears, the Cherokee brought the corn with them as they were forced away from their lands. “Generations from now, these seeds will still hold our history and there will always be a part of the Cherokee Nation in the world,” Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said in a statement earlier this month.
The Svalbard vault has already amassed about 1 million seeds representing more than 5,000 species since opening in 2008. They’re stored deep within a mountain in a structure designed to be as apocalypse-proof as possible. (The Arctic archipelago of Svalbard also houses a data archive.) The seed vault is artificially cooled to -18 degrees Celsius to preserve the seeds, but the rock and permafrost surrounding the vault is supposed to keep them frozen even if the power goes out.
Climate change has already tested how impenetrable the vault really is. Melting permafrost found its way inside the access tunnel to the vault in 2017. Luckily, the water froze inside before breaching the vault itself.
After that, Norway committed roughly €10 million ($10.8 million) to making the vault more fail-safe. The access tunnel was made more waterproof and its cooling system got an upgrade. The improvements, completed last year, ended up costing €20 million ($21.7 million). The seeds added today are the first major deposit since the upgrades were made.