The Svalbard Global Seed Vault (Norwegian: Svalbard globale frøhvelv) is a secure seedbank located on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen near the town of Longyearbyen in the remote Arctic Svalbard archipelago, about 1,300 kilometres (810 mi) from the North Pole. The facility preserves a wide variety of plant seeds in an underground cavern. The seeds are duplicate samples, or "spare" copies, of seeds held in gene banks worldwide.
The seed vault is an attempt to provide insurance against the loss of seeds in genebanks, as well as a refuge for seeds in the case of large-scale regional or global crises. The seed vault is managed under terms spelled out in a tripartite agreement between the Norwegian government, the Global Crop Diversity Trust (GCDT) and the Nordic Genetic Resource Center (NordGen). Construction of the seed vault, which cost approximately NOK 45 million (US$9 million), was funded entirely by the Government of Norway. Storage of seeds in the seed vault is free-of-charge. Operational costs will be paid by Norway and the Global Crop Diversity Trust. Primary funding for the Trust comes from organisations, such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and from various governments worldwide. The Nordic Gene Bank (NGB) has stored a backup of Nordic plant germplasm as frozen seeds in an abandoned coal mine at Svalbard since 1984. The NGB has deposited more than 10,000 seed samples of more than 2,000 cultivars of 300 different species over the years. In addition, seed samples from the Southern African Development Community have been safely duplicated with the Nordic collection for some years. Both the Nordic and African collections have been transferred to the new Svalbard Global Seed Vault facility. Since 1 January 2008, the Nordic Gene Bank is an integrated part of the newly formed NordGen.
The seedbank is constructed 120 metres (390 ft) inside a sandstone mountain at Svalbard on Spitsbergen Island. The bank employs a number of robust security systems. Seeds are packaged in special four-ply packets and heat sealed to exclude moisture. The facility is managed by the Nordic Genetic Resource Center, though there are no permanent staff on-site. Spitsbergen was considered ideal due to its lack of tectonic activity and its permafrost, which will aid preservation. The location 130 metres (430 ft) above sea level will ensure that the site remains dry even if the icecaps melt. Locally mined coal provides power for refrigeration units that further cool the seeds to the internationally recommended standard −18 °C (0 °F). Even if the equipment fails, at least several weeks will elapse before the temperature rises to the −3 °C (27 °F) of the surrounding sandstone bedrock. Prior to construction, a feasibility study determined that the vault could preserve seeds from most major food crops for hundreds of years. Some seeds, including those of important grains, could survive far longer, possibly thousands of years. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault opened officially on 26 February 2008. Approximately 1.5 million distinct seed samples of agricultural crops are thought to exist. The variety and volume of seeds stored will depend on the number of countries participating – the facility has a capacity to conserve 4.5 million.
The seeds are stored in four-ply sealed envelopes, then placed into plastic tote containers on metal shelving racks. The storage rooms are kept at −18 °C (0 °F). The low temperature and limited access to oxygen will ensure low metabolic activity and delay seed aging. The permafrost surrounding the facility will help maintain the low temperature of the seeds if the electricity supply should fail. The Global Crop Diversity Trust (GCDT) has played a key role in the planning of the seed vault and is coordinating shipments of seed samples to the Vault in conjunction with the Nordic Genetic Resource Center. The Trust will provide most of the annual operating costs for the facility, and has set aside endowment funds to do so, while the Norwegian government will finance upkeep of the structure itself. With support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other donors, the GCDT is assisting selected genebanks in developing countries as well as the international agricultural research centers in packaging and shipping seeds to the seed vault. An International Advisory Council is being established to provide guidance and advice. It will include representatives from the FAO, the CGIAR, the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources and other institutions. As part of the vault's one year anniversary, more than 90,000 food crop seed samples were placed into storage, bringing the total number of seed samples to 400,000.