Above: The Global Seed Vault
Image ©
Øyvind Breyholtz,iStockPhoto.com

On a remote island in Norway, around 1000 kilometres from the North Pole, sits the Global Seed Vault. On the outside, it looks like a mysterious door leading into a mountain. But deep inside, there are hundreds of thousands of seeds samples. According to the most recent count, this vault holds 890,000 samples of seeds from all around the world!

The Global Seed Vault is a type of seed bank. Seed banks are places where seeds are stored. Many seed banks were created to store crop seeds in case they disappear from nature.

Did you know? Seed banks are a type of gene bank. Gene banks are like storage units for genetic diversity. Scientists store plant seeds or animal sperm and eggs in gene banks.

What is the Global Seed Vault?

There are over 1000 seed banks around the world. The Global Seed Vault is there in case any of these seed banks get destroyed. Just as you might backup your school assignments or the photos on your phone, the global seed bank is a backup system for the world’s seeds.

Inside the Global Seed Vault, the seeds sit sealed in boxes. The temperature stays at -18°C. Scientists monitor the moisture levels and temperature inside the bank. This way, they make sure the conditions for preserving the seeds are right.

But in February 2018, the Norwegian government announced that the Global Seed Vault would be getting some updates. For example, it would get a concrete tunnel, and a building to store emergency power units and refrigerators in the Global Seed Vault. Why?

In general, these updates will make the Global Seed Vault more secure. In 2017, outdoor temperatures in the region were warmer than usual. This melted permafrost in the region. Permafrost is soil that has remained frozen (at 0°C or less) for at least two years straight. This melting permafrost caused flooding at the entrance to the Global Seed Vault. It didn’t affect any of the seeds, but it got scientists thinking about future risks. For example, rising temperatures due to climate change could make melting permafrost more common.

Why does the world need seed banks?

Seed banks preserve genetic diversity. There can be many different types of a plant. (How many different varieties of corn, rice or apples can you think of?) Some types may have different genetic traits that could help them survive more easily if there’s a disease outbreak or an environmental disaster. Thanks to seed banks, scientists and farmers have a source of genetically diverse seeds to replace any lost crops or to develop new strains, if needed.

This is especially important for food security. People who are food secure have access to enough safe, nutritious food to live on. But there are many things that can threaten food security for some or all people. Here are some examples of things that could threaten global food security:

  • Growing populations
  • Climate change
  • Fewer farmers than in earlier generations
  • Less water availability

Genetic diversity can help scientists and governments make sure the world has secure sources of food in the future, even with the risks above. That’s why seed banks are so important.

Did you know? Canada has a seed bank in Saskatoon. It stores many crops and is known for its collection of barley seeds.

Want to work with seeds in your classroom?

Let’s Talk Science’s free program, TomatosphereTM, looks at the question, “Do tomato seeds that have traveled through space germinate differently than seeds that stayed on earth?” Watch the video, then visit http://tomatosphere.letstalkscience.ca/ to learn more or sign up!

Let’s talk about it!

  • What is a seed bank?
  • Why is a seed bank a type of gene bank?
  • How is the Global Seed Vault like a backup system?
  • Why is the Global Seed Vault getting a new tunnel, emergency power and emergency refrigeration?
  • What other problems connected to melting permafrost do you know about?
  • How do seed banks preserve genetic diversity?
  • How would each of the following factors threaten food security: growing populations, climate change, fewer farmers, less water?

Learn more

Norway's Underground Doomsday Seed Vault Is Under Threat From Climate Change (2018)
Carr, TIME

Seed bank in Arctic may be humanity’s ultimate backup plan (2017)
Winsa, Toronto Star

Why seed banks aren't the only answer to food security (2015)
Sethi, The Guardian

The Importance of Seed Banking
Penn State University - College of Agricultural Sciences

Inside the “Doomsday” Vault
Duggan, TIME

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