Hidden away in remote, often inhospitable places around the world, fortress-like seed banks were built to protect and preserve biodiversity of life on earth. The most famous is the Global Seed Vault, located on the frigid Norwegian island of Svalbard, because of its scope and level of security, but there is actually an entire network of scientists and institutions dedicated to the survival of all of the plant species on the planet. And as a flooding of the Svalbard facility recently demonstrated, the effects of climate change are threatening to make that network of seed banks as vulnerable as the ecosystem it seeks to protect.
For the past eight years, Texas-based photographer Dornith Doherty has been traveling the world to document these seed banks, and many of the other facilities that supply and support them. Her new book, Archiving Eden, allows others to peek inside these institutions to see the methodology behind what Doherty calls a “comprehensive catalogue of life.”
As Doherty writes in the book, many of the seed banks she visited had research labs that commit themselves to preserve seeds for more than 200 years. At Svalbard, for one example, they are stored in black boxes and placed onto shelves in the vault room, which is kept at -18°C. Though seed banks are generally closed to people besides scientists, and images of vaults are typically of the exterior, Doherty got permission to document the interiors—and those workspaces are the most compelling parts of the book. “Stepping into a seed vault takes my breath away,” Doherty writes. “Bitterly cold and filled with the sound of forced air rushing through the shelves, I am surrounded by seeds resting in a state of suspended animation, preserved for a distant and unknowable future.”
Built into a mountain on the Norwegian island, located far north of the North Pole, Svalbard is kept cold thanks to permafrost and thick rock. The environment is meant to keep the specimens frozen even in the event that there is no power—which is why it was so alarming when the permafrost melted and flooded the facility, stopping just short of the vault. Though the Arctic was chosen as a location for the seed bank because of its climate, global warming is actually affecting it more drastically than anywhere else in the world.
Svalbard is not the only seed bank, however. Scientists withdrew seeds in 2015, much earlier than expected, after the Syrian civil war destroyed seeds at a local repository. For the photo series in the book, Doherty traveled to over 16 seed banks around the world, including the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation in Colorado, the Millennium Seed Bank in England, and the Kuban experimental station in Russia. She photographed everything from corn seedlings to sweet potato clones to eucalyptus and kangaroo grass. She also documented the ways these plants were studied, cleaned, and stored—in bright, white sterile scientific labs, in some cases, or vials organized in flat file cabinets in another. One photo shows empty cryogenic boxes stacked in wait; in another, sacks of dried seeds hang from hooks in the ceiling.
These quiet images of laboratories and plants are hopeful on one hand—it shows an expansive international network of people and facilities that are creating these protected sites, and the methodical, dedicated way they go about it. On the other hand, their work is necessary because of climate change and political instability—both of which were devastatingly reinforced by the U.S.’s withdrawal from the Paris accord. It looks like we need these botanical backups more than ever.