Scary reason ‘doomsday vault’ is on the edge of its own survival

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is humanity’s last chance of survival - and it’s under threat.

Grey vault entrance juts out from hillside in Norway.
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway could be humanities last reserve of food, but it's facing a brand new threat. Source: Getty

It was built as an isolated safeguard against an uncertain future. Its frozen vaults preserve the seeds of survival. It’s been forced to crack open its heavy doors far earlier than ever expected. Now, Norway’s so-called "doomsday vault" is itself under the threat of war.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is buried beneath a hill on a cluster of islands deep within the Arctic Circle, north of Norway. It’s as remote as possible while still within reach if needed.

It’s a gene bank. Grains. Vegetables. Fruits. The valuable — but often ignored — seeds it contains are an investment in the future.

The Svalbard Seed Vault the Arctic Circle, north of Norway.
The vault was intentionally built in a hard to access spot. Source: Getty

The climate is changing, as expected. Horrifying heatwaves are killing crops across the Middle East and Asia. Persistent fires rage through Siberia, Alaska and Canada. And nowhere seems safe from flood or drought.

And people aren’t helping.

Invasion has sewn landmines among the shattered granaries of Ukraine. Tank tracks have ploughed Gaza’s olive groves into the ground. And civil wars across Africa are forcing farmers off their lands.

The resultant confluence of chaos has been dubbed a “hyperthreat” — where a community’s resilience collapses under relentless assault.

A man carries a box containing seeds from Japan and USA into the international gene bank Svalbard Global Seed Vault.
The vault is now under an increasingly unnerving threat from Russia. Source: Getty

That’s made remote Svalbard more popular than ever.

A recent rush of deposits has seen its stockpile soar to more than 1.3 million seed samples from almost every country across the globe. It has room for millions more.

But Svalbard’s not as secure as it once was. The permafrost is crumbling. The ice sheets are retreating.

And international think-tank The Jamestown Foundation this week warned Russian President Vladimir Putin may have put the icy archipelago next on his invasion list.

Boxes line shelves inside the Svalbard Seed Vault. Source: Getty
The doomsday vault is home to millions of seeds. Source: Getty

Moscow says Sweden and Finland joining NATO threatens its security. It says it’s worried about NATO’s military activities in the Barents and Baltic Seas.

It says it will soon “have no choice” but to respond by seizing islands to create a security “buffer zone”.

The Jamestown Foundation this week published a report warning of President Putin’s attempts to justify such a move.

“Moscow has indicated that it feels entitled to unilaterally change internationally recognised borders in the Baltic Sea,” Eurasia analyst Paul Goble writes. “Additionally, it has suggested that it is eyeing Norway’s Svalbard archipelago as Russia’s most likely next military target.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses a plenary session of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is said to be eyeing Norway’s Svalbard archipelago as Russia’s most likely next military target. Source: AP

But Svalbard’s not your average island. And it’s not just because of its Doomsday Vault.

“Svalbard’s unique status as a sovereign territory of Norway with provisions for foreign nationals, Russia’s presence on the territory and its interests at sea, as well as the archipelago’s proximity to critical Russian military locations make Svalbard a potential geopolitical flash point,” the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) noted late last year.

Occupying Svalbard also would give Russia dominance over a new Northeast Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The retreating ice cap is on the brink of opening dramatically shorter trade routes between Moscow and Beijing.

“Putin is now following the template he used to advance military moves against Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine since 2014,” Goble said.

He said Moscow is moving to blame NATO for militarising the islands and painting this as a threat to the Russian people.

“Svalbard and the islands of the Baltic Sea would give Putin a victory that would likely lead to the unravelling of the Western alliance over time,” he concludes. “Consequently, what is playing out now about the islands belonging to Scandinavian countries is a far bigger deal than many currently believe.”

Svalbard in Norway outlined in red.
Moscow has indicated that it feels entitled to unilaterally change internationally recognised borders in the Baltic Sea, including Svalbard in Norway where the vault is located. Source: Google Maps

The Svalbard Seed Vault is humanity’s last bastion against global famine. Its conditions are ideal for putting seeds into a state of suspended animation.

Seeds from a campion flower found buried in the Siberian tundra for more than 30,000 years have been revived and grown. There’s no reason those inside Svalbard can’t do the same.

Any nation can use it. Everyone retains full ownership rights over their own “black box” deposits.

The varieties locked there are less productive. Less profitable. Less popular. Rare.

But modern crops, such as wheat, are tailored to suit the efficiencies of scale demanded by mass production. That means they all come from the same optimised family. And that leaves them especially vulnerable to unexpected new diseases, pests or sustained shifts in circumstances.

Others are ideally suited to specific local conditions. Or a culturally significant parts of a diet.

Ivan Matus and Fernando Ortega from Chile carrying a package containing seeds as they arrive at the Global Seed Vault seed bank.
Each country has made deposits into the vault, just like these representatives from Chile who are carrying a package containing seeds from their nation. Source: Getty

And that exposes them to the seemingly ever-increasing threat of natural disaster and war.

But floods pass. Fires burn out. Wars end. Which leaves people to pick up the pieces.

Syria’s investment has already paid off.

Its own seed stocks were devastated by a decade-long civil war and unprecedented drought. But it had an insurance policy buried beneath Svalbard’s permafrost. In 2021, it made a withdrawal of the ancient varieties of barley, durum wheat, faba bean, chickpea and lentils that grow so well on its arid plains.

But the vault is also regularly accessed by scientists.

The world has to find ways to boost food production by 70 per cent before 2050. Even as weather extremes increase in frequency and intensity.

So they’re looking for rare and forgotten varieties containing genes that may keep crops - such as wheat - producing at current levels at the very least.

But that can only happen for as long as Svalbard's Doomsday Vault remains open to the world.

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