Virtual Photo Tour Takes You Inside Apocalyptic Seed Vault

global seed bank in Svalbard
The Global Seed Bank in Svalbard.

Tucked away in the remote Arctic Svalbard archipelago is the Global Seed Vault; a backup facility for the world’s crops should things go awry. The building itself looks like the lair of a James Bond villain.

But now the doomsday facility has opened its doors via a virtual photography tour that takes viewers through its subterranean tunnels and storage areas stacked with millions of seeds.

The comprehensive tour, which can be viewed here, was created by The Virtual Tour Experts who specialize in drone and 360 photography and are based in the United Kingdom.

The tour opens with an epic overview of the Seed Bank’s entrance taken from a drone which can be viewed in nighttime and daytime. Another shot of the secretive entrance from the ground underlines what a unique structure the Seed Bank is. Located halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole, it is not accessible for most.

seed bank
Rows of seeds.

Once inside, the viewer is taken underground through concrete tunnels before arriving at “The Cathedral” where roughly 3,500 seed boxes have passed through on their way into the three seed chambers that can each be virtually toured.

The unique 360-degree tour was made to celebrate the vault’s 15th anniversary. Since it opened in 2008, it has remained closed to the public and subject to various conspiracy theories.

“It is a bit like being in a cathedral. It has high ceilings and when you’re standing inside the mountain, there’s hardly any sound. All you can hear is yourself,” Lise Lykke Steffensen, executive director of NordGen, tells The Guardian.

“When you open the door [to the seed banks], it’s minus 18 degrees Celsius (minus 0.4 degrees Fahrenheit) — the international standard for conserving seeds — which is very, very cold. Then you see all of the boxes with seeds from all of these countries. I’ve been so many times and I’m still curious.”

The Svalbard Seed Bank

NordGen is responsible for the day-to-day operation of the vault looking after the 642 million seeds that hail from almost every country in the world. The space has capacity for 2.5 billion.

The tubers, rice, and grains stored at the Seed Bank are a backup for when the originals are lost if a catastrophe occurs, either globally or regionally.

seed bank

In 2012, it helped restore the national seed bank of the Philippines after it was damaged by flooding. It also helps farmers in Zambia who suffer from dry conditions, providing them with a type of grass called sorghum which is used for flour and grows rapidly in arid lands.

However, the Svalbard Seed Bank has its own issues as the island is the most rapidly warming location on the planet. In 2017, a heatwave caused meltwater to flood the facility.

“The virtual tour gives everybody the opportunity to look inside. We think that is a general question of transparency and accountability to the broader public,” says Stefan Schmitz, executive director of the Crop Trust.

“What is secured inside the vault is one of the most important global public goods we have on Earth. But we need to protect them, secure them and to make sure that they are conserved in perpetuity.”

Image credits: All photos courtesy of the Crop Trust