Arbor Day | The Global Seed Vault

Today, April 29th, is Arbor Day. If your experience with Arbor Day is anything like mine, then you may be snickering at its very name. Arbor Day was, in movies, TV, and in one particularly notable issue of MAD Magazine, often presented as a punchline. Could there, media asked, be a more boring holiday than one devoted to trees? That MAD spoof, by the way (which appeared in issue #227, in December 1981), posited a horror movie based on Arbor Day, and I’m surprised an actual slasher never surfaced. The holiday, by the way, is devoted to planting trees, and ensuring that trees continue their long live on this little green ball of ours. 

In the ensuing span since my long-ago childhood, however, the environmentalist movement began in this country in earnest, Tree People became an enormous organization, and looking after trees became a more earnest, serious activity. Indeed, Arbor Day reaches into an old and international tradition of looking after the world’s plants. The first Arbor Day, a quick bot of research will reveal, was actually celebrated as long ago as 1594 in the Spanish village of Mondoñedo, and the first U.S. Arbor Day was celebrated in 1872 in Nebraska. Arbor Day is now something of a major happening all over the world, and planting trees is seen as a noble act. I’d still love to see that horror movie, though. Groot can star. 

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Concern over the robust diversity and continued existence of the planet’s plant life has actually led to one of the coolest of all human endeavors: The Svalbard Global Seed Vault (or globale frøhvelv in its native Norwegian), a gigantic repository located way, way north of the Arctic Circle on a distant Norwegian island, and may one of the most important banks in the world. 

In the 1980s, Norway, concerned with plant and animal extinction, began to amass seeds and genetic samples of every type of plant then known to humankind. Most seeds, as we may remember from 9th-grade biology classes, can survive being suspended at super-low temperatures more or less indefinitely and still be viable for planting. As such, a team of Norwegian scientists stored about 10,000 different types of seeds, refrigerated, in an underground mine. This was done in conjunction with an African project that was more or less doing the same thing. 

Bjoertvedt

Bjoertvedt

In 2008, however, the two projects merged, and the entire collection of seeds – by this point, containing about 1.5 million samples – was moved to the Seed Vault in Svalbard, which was declared in full operation in late February of that year. 

The vault itself is like something out of a sci-fi movie. It’s a naturally freezing cavern, about 400 feet long, carved into the side of a sandstone mountain. Inside the vault, seeds are sealed in tiny packages that have been specially designed to keep moisture out. The Vault is also patrolled heavily and constantly by high-tech security. Occasionally “librarians” and other biologists will check on the seeds, but there is no real staff. It’s just proven to be the most practical place to store our seeds. 

Why Svalbard? Several reasons. For one, it’s so remote from human movement, that it would be entirely unlikely for someone to traipse along and start fucking with the seeds. Secondly, it’s way, way above sea level, making it eternally dry. Even if the polar ice caps were to melt entirely, Svalbard would stay undampened. The permafrost also acts as a natural refrigerator, although coal-powered refrigeration units are also installed. 

NordGen/Dag Terje Filip Endresen

NordGen/Dag Terje Filip Endresen

So if the Earth was to experience some sort of massive calamity, and we needed access to 1.5 million species of plants again, what would happen? Would we just be allowed to storm the vault? Sadly, no. Indeed, even experts, botanists, and expert plant breeders will be denied access, even in extreme situations. Indeed, the Vault is treated very much like a bank, with individual plant owners storing their own personal samples there. That means only the people (or organizations) that stores seeds there can withdraw them, and they only have access to their own seeds. 

Does that put us at the mercy of crazed survivalists who thought to store seeds there? Likely, no. The seeds are, in the  minds of most, saved at the Vault for genetic posterity and in case of the most grievous of emergencies, including outright extinctions. Although in 2015, the Vault did get its first ever withdrawal. It’s not been revealed who withdrew seeds or why, but we may assume that they were moved to another seed vault elsewhere in the world. A vault, for instance, recently opened in Beirut. 

We may not have the personal resources to have our own seed vaults, dear readers, but this Arbor Day, we can do our own part by planting a few seeds of our own. Plant a tree, then check up on in a decade. Then plant more. 

Top Image: Disney

Witney Seibold is a contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. He also contributes to Legion of Leia and to Blumhouse. You can follow him on “The Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.