Svalbard: Google Street View, Pyramiden, and the Global Seed Vault

Longyearbyen, Svalbard. Source: HylgeriaK, Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.

This week saw the latest TBG article for Google Sightseeing commemorate the newly-released Google Street View imagery for the Norwegian Arctic archipelago of Svalbard; the northernmost such imagery released to date (you can view the article here). The imagery begins in the picturesque world’s northernmost city, Longyearbyen (named for an American resource magnate, in case you were wondering) and then carries northwards through spectacular mountains and over glaciers to the abandoned Soviet-era coal mining town of Pyramiden.

If that last sentence threw you off a bit (‘“Soviet-era”? In Norway?’), it’s simply a reflection of the unique status of Svalbard. While considered an integral territory of Norway, governance over Svalbard (also known as Spitzbergen after its largest island) is dictated under the terms of the 1920 Svalbard Treaty (fully ratified in 1925), signed by 41 countries. Prior to that treaty, Svalbard had been considered terra nullius, belonging to no one. The archipelago first came to international attention with its formal discovery in 1596, after which it became a free-for-all gathering place for whalers, researchers, and, later, miners.

It was the early 20th century coal mining boom and the advent of permanent settlements being built on the islands that necessitated the negotiation of a treaty to determined how the islands, just nine degrees south of the North Pole, would be governed. Between 1899 and 1927, Norway, the United Kingdom, the United States, Sweden, and the Soviet Union had all established mining settlements in Svalbard. The resultant treaty gave the islands to Norway (the closest country to Svalbard), but only allows the kingdom to apply the exact amount of taxes it needs to support governmental operations on the island. Citzens of all countries party to the treaty are allowed to work and reside in Svalbard, as well as undertake industrial activity. No naval bases or fortifications are permitted.

This open policy, combined with the Soviet Union’s desire to have a foothold in a strategically important location inside territorially a traditionally Western country, resulted in locations such as Pyramiden being developed. At its height a village of over 1 000 residents, Pyramiden would not survive long after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The state-owned coal miner Arcticugol closed the mine and the village at the height of the Russian economic collapse in 1998. Today, Pyramiden sits in stasis with only a handful of caretakers on hand. A curiosity among both casual tourists and urban explorers, there is talk of redeveloping the community as an Arctic tourist destination. The company continues, however, to operate at Barentsburg, Svalbard’s second-largest village with around 500 residents, almost all of whom are Russian and Ukrainian (a contrast to the multi-ethnic but largely Norwegian Longyearbyen).

Main street, Pyramiden, with wooden residential barracks. Sourcer: E. Pecher, Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unportedlicence.

Coal operations above the ghost town of Pyramiden. Note the Russian rock graffiti on the mountainside at left. Source: E. Pecher, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unportedlicence.

The world’s northernmost bust of Lenin stands outside the old sport centre in Pyramiden. Source: Arcimboido, Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unportedlicence.

As GSS’s most loyal commenter Tammo pointed out, Svalbard is also home to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, the facility famous for being the storehouse of hundreds of thousands of samples of plant seeds from around the world. Nicknamed the ‘Doomsday Vault’, the vault’s purpose is to guard against loss of genetic diversity in global fauna and to safeguard endangered plant varieties in case of a catastrophe. An astounding 750 000 distinct seed samples have been placed in storage since the facility’s opening in 2008 with capacity to store as many as 4.5 million samples. As there can be 500 seeds within each sample, this means that the vault can store up to 2.25 billion seeds, all to be contained within the vault’s  1 000 m2 (11 000 sq ft) floor area.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault as seen from above, embedded 120 m (394 ft) into the south side of a mountain near Spitzbergen’s Adventfjorden. The Longyearbyen airport lies on the north side.

There is no cost for storing the seeds in the vault. Each donor country remains the owner of the samples it places in the vault and can access their samples at anytime. Researchers and breeders wishing to access the seeds do not do so via the vault itself (the vault is managed in a three-way partnership between Norway’s Ministry of Agriculture and Food, the Global Crop Diversity Trust, and the Nordic Genetic Resource Center). Rather, they must contact the sample’s donor, who will withdraw the sample for them.

Svalbard was chosen for the vault’s location due to its low level of tectonic activity and high levels of permafrost, both of which are crucial for keeping the vault stable and damage-free while also ensuring that temperature in the facility remain consistently cold (average temperature inside the vault is kept at -18°C, or 0°F). The mountain location not allows the vault to be embedded in permafrost but keeps the facility well above sea level in case of large global sea level rises. As an internationally neutral territory and as part of Norway, Svalbard also possesses the political stability necessary to host such a facility.


Source: Bjoertvedt, Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.

Further Reading

Handwerk, B. (2012). Pictures: “Doomsday” Seed Vault Safeguards Our Food Supply. National Geographic Daily News, Accessed 9 December 2012.

Ministry of Agriculture and Food (2012). Frequently asked questions. Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Available at Accessed 9 December 2012.

Redisch, A-S. (2011). Barentsburg highlights. Sophie’s World, 7 July 2011. Available at Accessed 9 December 2012.

Redisch, A-S. (2011). Pyramiden – an Arctic ghost town. Sophie’s World, 18 August 2011. Available at Accessed 9 December 2012.

Ruin Memories (2012). Pyramiden Arctic Ruins. 25 August 2012. Available at Accessed 9 December 2012.

Terra Polaris (2012). Pyramiden – Settlement, Accomodation, Travel. 22 February 2012. Available at;=5. Accessed 9 December 2012.

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