Virtual Tour of the Mysterious “Doomsday” Seed Vault

The mysterious seed vault is buried in Arctic permafrost. The seed collection protects the world’s cultivated species and is a magnet for conspiracy theories. Now the public can take a look.

Rising from the permafrost on a mountainside in Spitsbergen in the Svalbard archipelago, the entrance to the world’s “doomsday” seed vault is worthy of any James Bond movie. Surrounded by snow, ice and the occasional polar bear, the facility houses samples of 1.2 million seeds from all corners of the planet as an insurance policy against catastrophes. It is a monument to 12,000 years of human agriculture that aims to prevent the permanent loss of crop species after war, natural disaster or pandemic.

The Global Seed Vault in the Norwegian Arctic, opened in 2008, is closed to the public and shrouded in mystery, the subject of countless doomsday conspiracy theories on social media. Now, to celebrate the vault’s 15th anniversary, everyone is invited to take a virtual tour to see inside the vast collection of tubers, rice, grains and other seeds buried deep within the mountain behind five sets of metal doors.

A Cathedral of Seeds

The freezer, designed to last forever, is co-managed by the Norwegian government, Crop Trust and NordGen, the gene bank for the Nordic countries. The seeds may hold answers to agricultural challenges posed by the climate crisis, are studied for invasive species, pests, changing rainfall patterns and runaway biodiversity loss, and are opened three times a year to accept new deposits from other seed banks at the around the world. Scientists say they hope people will learn more about their work through the virtual tour, without risking falling prey to a polar bear.

It’s a bit like being in a cathedral. It has high ceilings and when you are inside the mountain there is almost no sound. All you can hear is yourself,” says Lise Lykke Steffensen, CEO of NordGen, responsible for the safe’s day-to-day operation. “When you open the door [a las colecciones], it’s -18ºC, the international standard for seed preservation, which is very, very cold. So you see all the boxes with seeds from all these countries. I’ve been so many times and I’m still curious”.

After the Aleppo seed bank was destroyed in the Syrian civil war, the vault was used to replenish seeds for the first time by the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Arid Zones, a regional center based in Aleppo to study crops. civilization where agriculture began. Research into the resilience of these crops and plant species could be vital as the planet warms in the coming decades.

The Seed Vault Virtual Tour

Away from the panoramic Arctic night view from the vault entrance, the virtual tour takes you through a long tunnel deep within the mountain. Eventually, you arrive at the “cathedral”, which houses the three seed chambers, each of which can hold around 3,000 seed boxes. Each species is sealed in an airtight bag and stored in its country box. When walking through what looks like the shelves of a DIY store, you can click on a country box for more information.

The seeds are theoretically safe, although the entrance to the facility was flooded with meltwater in 2017 following a heatwave in Svalbard. The island is the fastest warming part of the planet, but experts say the deposits are buried so deep in permafrost that they will be safe for centuries. The seeds are replaced every few decades, and if the cooling system fails, it would likely take hundreds of years for the temperature inside the vaults to rise above freezing.

The virtual tour gives everyone a chance to look inside. We think it’s a general issue of transparency and accountability to the general public.”, says Stefan Schmitz, CEO of Crop Trust. “What’s protected inside the vault is one of the most important global public goods we have on Earth. But we need to protect them, protect them and make sure they are preserved forever.”.

New species for the seed vault

This week the vault received seeds from Albania, Croatia, North Macedonia and Benin for the first time, along with wild strawberry varieties from a German research institute. Plants like these could hold the key to helping humanity feed growing populations in a warmer world, says Schmitz.

These wild strawberries are amazing. Simply because of their ability to survive in the wild for millions of years, they have been shown to be robust.says Schmitz. “They can withstand changes in climate, they can withstand tough situations with almost no soil, and that’s exactly what scientists and plant breeders are interested in. Today, we can start growing varieties that are resistant to more severe climates.“.


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