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Why Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway Is a Forbidden Place

The Svalbard Seed Vault
The Svalbard Seed Vault | © Frode Bjorshol/Flickr
It has been called ‘the Noah’s Ark of plant diversity’. An apt description – had Noah’s Ark been built to also withstand asteroid impacts and nuclear bombs. The Global Seed Vault at Svalbard’s arctic archipelago is practically impenetrable and, unless you have actual business there, don’t expect to be allowed inside. Here’s why.

Specifically located to discourage visitors

Spitsbergen, the only inhabited island of the Svalbard archipelago, lies just 1,300 kilometers from the North Pole. It’s not an easy place to reach: Svalbard is the farthest north a person can fly on a scheduled flight, and there are no roads between the island’s settlements. The temperatures can reach −46.3 °C (−51.3 °F) and there is literally no sunlight for 153 days a year. Oh, and there are polar bears around that will not hesitate to attack and eat your chocolate. All in all, it’s a perfect place to build a super secure facility without having to invest in expensive security measures or even in signs that say “visitors keep out”.

It’s important for this specific facility to be as secure as possible. Svalbard Global Seed Vault, operated by Global Crop Diversity Trust, is practically the world’s insurance policy. Here, the earth’s seed stocks are preserved so that humanity can start over in case of Armageddon-like global disasters.

Svalbard Global Seed Vault Courtesy of Global Crop Diversity Trust

It’s like walking into the UN – of seeds

Thankfully, there are some added perks to the arctic climate other than discouraging guests. For instance, there is zero possibility of earthquakes, and even if there’s a power cut and the cooling systems fail, the temperature will not exceed −4 °C. Plus, the vault is actually 100 meters inside the mountain, and only the entrance is visible. Even in the case of ice melting in the future due to climate change, the Vault still wouldn’t be affected, as it is built 150 meters above sea level. In fact, with the Global Seed Vault maintaining an optimal temperature of -18ºC, experts believe the seeds could survive for thousands of years in the vault.

Currently over a million seeds – each sealed individually in a heatproof packet – are sitting there in a permafrost space. And this is where it gets even more interesting. The seeds are from all over the world – each country has rights and access to its own seeds, and are the only ones that can open the boxes and withdraw them. As the experts on the virtual tour inside the vault will tell you (there can be no physical tour “unless you are a nominated plant breeder or researcher”), there are no borders here. There are 13,000 years’ worth of humanity’s agricultural history on the vault’s shelves, so it’s understandably crucial that safety of the seeds is prioritized. In fact, Norway recently spent 100 million NOK towards upgrading and extending the viability of the Vault, which has the capacity to hold 2.5 billion seeds.

A row of the shelves and boxes that make up the world’s largest collection of crop diversity © Michael Poliza, Courtesy of Global Crop Diversity Trust

You can take a selfie outside

Of course, the fact that it’s hard to reach and impossible to enter doesn’t completely discourage travelers. While you’re still not allowed to go in, you can visit the exterior of the Seed Vault to take photos. There are even tours that will take you there and tell you all you need to know about the Seed Vault. There is also the awe-inducing facade, with the artwork ‘Perpetual Repercussion’ by Dyveke Sanne adorning it. As it glitters during those long, polar nights, sometimes with the Northern Lights also twinkling above, it will make you realize the trip was worth it.

The Svalbard Global Seed Bank on a Polar Night Courtesy of Global Crop Diversity Trust