For most of human history, about 10,000 years ago, we began to domesticate plants as a way to make our food supply more accessible. That is the starting point of agricultural history. Over the past decades, technological advances have changed agricultural practices dramatically to allow large-scale crop production. While crop yields have increased, biodiversity has decreased conversely. The loss of a crop variety is as irreversible as the extinction of the dinosaur. As we enter a new era of agricultural history, human faces new challenges and new responsibilities.
The Government of Norway was encouraged to consider the establishment of a global facility in a remote location near the North Pole to preserve a wide variety of plant by sparing copies of seeds held in 1,750 seed banks worldwide. The mission of this project is to provide protection of crop diversity in the face of climate change and natural or man-made disasters. In February 2008, the secure seed bank which is the world’s largest collection of crop diversity to date, was opened on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard in the Arctic Ocean. This icy seed storage is now known as the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.
Svalbard is a perfect location for long-term seed storage for several reasons. Even as temperatures increase, area near the poles with permafrost like Svalbard will remain colder than other places on the earth. The location is geologically stable with no tectonic activity. This remote area is also the farthest north a person can fly on a scheduled flight.
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is located 120 m inside a sandstone mountain, providing insulation properties to ensure that the vault rooms will remain naturally frozen even of failure of the mechanical cooling system. Three underground storage rooms were constructed at 130 m above sea level and installed with two pumping station to remove any water that might get in, protecting them from unexpected flooding.
The seeds are stored in a vacuum-packed three-ply foil packages and placed into plastic containers that are neatly stacked on floor-to-ceiling metal shelves. Refrigeration units, powered by locally mined coal, provide a temperature of -18 degree Celsius in order to maintain optimal storage condition. The low temperature as well as limited access to oxygen and moisture will ensure low metabolic activity, keeping the seeds viable for long periods of time. If the system fails, the vault would take two centuries to warm to 0 degree Celsius.
The frozen seed vault can hold up to 4.5 million variety of crops. To date, the holdings in the vault are more than 1,000,000 seed samples originating from almost every country in the world. Prority was given to crops that are important for food production such as wheat, rice, corn and legumes. When the seed boxes arrive at Svalbard, the vault staff receives and register each box in the storage system and updates the database and its public interface.
Instead of storing seeds that will survive forever, Doomsday Vault is getting an expansion to archive sensitive data and documents using specially developed films and protective plastic packaging. The Arctic World Archive is an offline data vault located in Svalbard which will protect data from cyber-attacks under a vault deep inside a shutdown mine.
Any files can be written onto the film including text documents, images, video with sound, and digital database. In order to secure these data onto the physical storage medium, the digital data are written as 0 and 1 and appear on the film as black-and-white pixels in QR codes. After data verification on the reader, the data reel will be assembled, packed, and shipped to the storage located in Svalbard. Both film and packaging has been tested under controlled accelerated aging condition to last for more than 500 years in standard storage conditions.
The Arctic World Archive was officially opened in March 2017. The National Archives of Brazil, Mexico, and the National Museum of Norway were the first to deposit data in the vault. The opening was covered by mass media worldwide, including CNN, TIME Magazine, and the World Economic Forum. As the arctic climate with permafrost is perfect for long-term storage of valuable data, Svalbard will be the safest and coolest place to keep films and seeds on the shelves and leave them there for centuries for the next generations.
Did you know?
Piql is a Norwegian technology company that provide data storage services at the Arctic World Archive. The content is written onto a photosensitive and chemically stable piqlFilm. This uniquely invented film has been modified on nano-level to improve data density. Not only the film designed for data preservation, a customized outer packaging made from special plastic material is also developed in order to protect the film reels from degradation. PiqlFilm together with highly robust plastic packaging have been proven to provide long-term qualities which can secure data in a digital format for centuries.