In The Field

Built to last (until doomsday)

The Svalbard seed vault is built to survive a range of natural and man-made meltdowns. It’s high enough on the mountain’s face to rise above any projected sea-level rise, and given that it’s seed collections will be nestled more than 100 metres inside the rock, it can potentially withstand nuclear explosion or earthquake. Its tapered shape is designed to cut through avalanches or landslides, meaning that its entranceway can still be reached. Given that the Doomsday vault is intended to last for centuries, the facility was designed to endure a range of doomsday scenarios.

What its designers didn’t expect is for this to be put to the test before it even opened. But last week, Svalbard was the scene of the biggest earthquake in Norway’s history. Talk about timing.


Judging by the first external view of the vault, it seems to have passed the test with ease. Hardly surprising given that only a few metres of its 125-metre total length sticks out of the mountainside. Architecturally, it’s pretty unprepossessing – built from concrete in a typically continental-European style, it looks like the sort of outhouse used to store skis in an Alpine resort.

In fact there’s not much to the facility. Digging a tunnel into a frozen mountainside and then keeping it cool is a bit of a no-brainer, engineering-wise. More impressive is the effort of thousands upon thousands of the world’s farmers to cultivate the estimated 1.5 million crop strains on the planet – almost all of which will be represented here when the seed collection, of which the first batch is delivered today – is complete.

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