A particularly tangible sort of insurance policy is being initiated today, with the opening of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. The underground facility is intended to protect the genetic diversity of plant species, in recognition of the risk that other seeds could be destroyed by a worldwide disaster. Eventually, the vault is meant to contain 4.5 million seed samples, deposited by governments from around the world.
The vault is buried 120m inside a sandstone mountain selected for remoteness, persistent cold, and lack of tectonic activity. The selection of a site 130m above sea level ensures that, even if all the world’s ice melts, it will not be submerged. The seeds will be kept at a temperature of -20 to -30 degrees Celsius using electrical power. In the event of a failure of refrigeration, several weeks would elapse before temperatures rose to the -3 degree temperature of the surrounding rock. The packaging of the seeds – along with their natural durability – should make at least some viable for long periods of time, even in the absence of refrigeration.
The $9.1 million project was financed by the Global Crop Diversity Trust. While there is no particular reason to believe that the world’s 1400 or so other seed banks would be universally unable to survive something like a nuclear war or a comet or asteroid impact, $9.1 million is probably a sensible expenditure when so many potentially vital species are to be protected. Less sensational disasters are also being insured against: from the destruction of national seedbanks through conflicts or errors to administrative blunders or localized natural disasters.
An interactive tour of the facility is accessible online.