Norway’s doomsday agricultural seed vault will get a $13 million upgrade to better protect world food supplies amid growing threats from climate change, the country announced.
The work on the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, located nearly 400 feet beneath the earth’s surface inside a coal mine, was announced Monday as the international facility celebrated its 10th anniversary and its holding of more than 1 million seed samples.
The facility, which is fully funded by the Norwegian government, offers any government access to seeds in case of natural or man-made disaster. The concept was successfully tested in 2015, with a seed withdrawl to help Syria re-establish crops wiped out by the country’s civil war.
The upgrades will include a concrete access tunnel, a service building for emergency power and refrigerating units, as well as other electrical equipment that will emit heat through the tunnel, Norway’s government said in a statement.
The decision to upgrade to the access tunnel comes nearly one year after the vault’s entryway flooded due to unprecedented melting of the area’s permafrost. Though the flooding did not damage any seeds, it served as a jarring reminder of the growing effects of climate change. The vault was designed to take advantage of the location’s permafrost as a permanent feature offering natural cooling protection for the seeds.
“It was not in our plans to think that the permafrost would not be there and that it would experience extreme weather like that,” Hege Njaa Aschim, a spokeswoman for the agency that runs the facility, told The Guardian at the time of the flooding. “It was supposed to [operate] without the help of humans, but now we are watching the seed vault 24 hours a day.”
On Monday, more than 76,000 new seed samples ― each containing about 500 seeds ― were added to the vault’s collection, bringing the total of seed samples in storage to more than 1 million. The vault has the capacity for more than 4.5 million seed samples, according to its website.
“It is simply impressive that 1 million seed samples from all over the world have now found their way to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault,” Norway’s minister of agriculture and food, Jon Georg Dale, said in a statement. “It confirms the important role of the seed vault as a worldwide insurance for food supply for future generations and an ever-growing population.”
Dagfinn Høybråten, who serves as secretary general of the Nordic Council of Ministers, which includes Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden, praised collaboration toward the greater good.
“Nowhere else in the world has a group of countries pooled their plant genetic resources and placed them under a common administration and made them freely accessible,” the council’s website quotes Høybråten as saying. “There are many reasons for why this is possible here in the Nordic countries but many of them have something to do with trust. We trust each other – we trust our politicians and we have confidence in the future.”
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, there are more than 1,700 gene banks housing food crops around the world.
In the U.S., there are more than two dozen repository centers affiliated with the U.S. National Plant Germplasm System, which works to preserve the genetic diversity of plants through state, federal and private organizations.
One of the largest facilities is the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins, Colorado. According to a 2013 report by NPR, that facility’s seed collection numbers in the billions.