The Norwegian seed bank is designed to protect the world’s plant life. Now, a short documentary from VICE explores the inside.
Motherboard, the tech- and science division of VICE, has revisited what they consider to be their best documentaries from 2016. On the top of their list? A visit to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.
In this short documentary, we catch a fascinating glimpse into the world’s northernmost and coldest seed bank, situated deep within the permafrost.
The seed vault is built to contain 4,5 million different seed samples from all over the world, ensuring that biodiverse plant life can be restored even in the event of a great natural disaster or manmade catastrophe.
“Some journalists call this ‘the Noah’s Ark of plant diversity’,” seed vault coordinator Åsmund Asdal says in the documentary.
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Shelf upon shelf stocked with crates of seeds from every country imaginable (even North Korea) might not be a spectacular sight in itself, but as Asdal points out:
“What you see in here is 13,000 years of agricultural history.”
For visual excitement, the exterior of the building is probably a better bet. A sharp concrete edge cutting its way out from within the mountain, with the eye-catching art installation “Perpetual repercussions” by artist Dyveke Sanne facing out from the front.
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According to a press release from 2008, the art installation consists of highly reflective stainless steel, mirrors and prisms, all reflecting light in every direction. Sanne herself wrote these thoughts on the seed vault:
“The existence of the seed vault reminds us of our own place in the whole and of the condition of the Earth. The seeds commit us to a future. They are biodiverse copies that demand cyclical repetition in action instead of a continuing faith in appointed originals and linear progress.”
The vault is secured against most threats, even extremely dire ones such as asteroids and nuclear bombs. Due to its location deep within the permafrost, the temperature here will not exceed four minus celsius even in the event of a power cut and subsequent cooling system failure.
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And according to the Svalbard Post, power cuts do actually occur. In October, rainwater from a storm made its way into a transformer and killed the fuses. Important to note, however: The water never got anywhere near the seeds.
Around the same time, new seeds were arriving from places like Colombia, Burundi, India, Japan and Bosnia – 29 crates in total, containing a total of 9,866 different strains. The vault will be accepting another batch of seeds this February.
Whereas deposits to the vault remain the norm, 2015 marked the first time a withdrawal was made. Due to the civil war in Syria, the nation’s gene bank in Aleppo is considered to be lost. According to Norwegian newspaper VG, some of the seeds have been sent back to the Middle East to be grown and harvested, before new seeds will then be returned to the vault.
“This tells us that the seed vault is one of the world’s wonders”, Asdal told VG back then.
“It is a great thing for Norway, this ability to return seeds to gene banks that have ceased to function. In a way, this seed vault that we have built is our gift to the world.”
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Visits inside the vault remain a rarity for most people. However, Svalbard Science Destination offer guided tours to visitors who wish to see view the vault from the outside.
The Svalbard Islands are located in the Arctic Ocean, halfway between Norway and the North Pole. Here, you will find untouched arctic wilderness and unique wildlife in a setting that is both rugged and fragile at the same time.
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