The Svalbard Global Seed Vault celebrates its 10th anniversary this week. The tourism manager at Visit Svalbard marvels at how the the strictly inaccessible depot – and its mythology – has become the island groups biggest hit.
Published: 1 March 2018
Midnight sun, the blue hour and northern lights. Polar bears on their home field, majestic white surfaces and gigantic glaciers. Arctic climate, raw nature and wildlife at its most beautiful and magic.
These are some of the things one would typically associate with Svalbard, the desolate Norwegian island group which is the closest most of will ever come to visiting the North Pole.
But for the last decade, a strong contender for travelers’ attention has emerged. Wrapped in green, alluring lights and reclining deep into the mountain Platåberget a snowball’s throw away from Longyearbyen is a storage room that could matter to our future existence on the planet, no less.
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault was opened in February 2008. During the last ten years, the bank has received deposits from more than 70 gene banks all over the world, and there are currently more than one million samples of seeds stored 100 metres inside a former coal mine.
The purpose of the international seed vault is to secure the genetic variations of food crops in case of local or global crises. So far, only one withdrawal of seeds has taken place: After the the vital seed collection of a research center in Aleppo was destroyed in 2015, during the Syrian war, they were able to retrieve 80 percent of their collection from the cold north.
The tourism manager of Svalbard, Ronny Brunvoll, explains enthusiastically – and slightly puzzled – how the seed vault is turning into a modern monument on the island of Spitsbergen.
“I wouldn’t say I’m surprised, but perhaps rather fascinated. There’s been an enormous interest, especially after the leak.”
The leak Brunvoll refers to made international headlines last year, despite the fact that the incident happened in 2016, and that the vault’s currency – its seeds – were safely stored in 18 degrees below zero throughout the ordeal.
Ironically, the reason for the leak could likely be attributed to one of the dangers the vault was created to face – warmer temperature as a result of climate changes.
Ronny Brunvoll believes this dramatic aspect of the global seed vault’s existence to be a significant part of its appeal to Svalbard’s visitors.
“The mythology is of great importance. While the official name of the bank is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, it is often referred to as the 'the Doomsday Vault' or 'a backup for humanity'. So this really is a grand story about life and death”, says the tourist manager.
Even though the massive vault is located far into the Platåberget mountain, the entrance defies its modest size stunningly, with an award-winning light installation by Norwegian artist Dyveke Sanne as a spectacular eyecatcher.
“A small necklace lighting up the Polar Night”, is how Ronny Brunvoll describes it. However, he also points out the structure’s inaccessibility a somewhat paradoxical point of interest.
“The vault is frequently featured on various internet lists, such as 'the ten coolest places you’re not allowed to visit' or 'nine of the world’s most secure vaults'. I mean, Svalbard alongside Fort Knox – that’s really something”, he chuckles.
Information about the gigantic seed collection is physically available at Svalbard Museum and at Longyearbyen Travel and Tourist Information. Another possibility for the curious is a virtual tour through the vault.
Still, Brunvoll has hopes for a visitor center as the vault’s entrance is rectified later this year – an idea well received by Statsbygg, the depot’s builders. Dissemination, not size, is of the essence, he argues.
“The success of the vault illustrates how difficult it is to predict what will become an attraction. But it doesn’t have be that big or flashy”, Brunvoll concludes.