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Monthly Archives: February 2016 − News & Stories


The famous seed vault – 29 February, 2016

Of course you may say it is just a big freezer and nothing else. That is, essentially, true. But – again – of course it is so much more than just that. A hope for mankind, a lifering for survivors of global catastrophes. Well, the first sentence may be understated as much as the latter one an exaggeration, but in any way, the seed vault does attract a lot of attention. Something that also led to the new section of this website.

But actually entering the seed vault? Did not happen. It is not a place that normal people would normally get to see. Also some people who are not normal people are said to have waited in vain for that large door to open. Access is strictly regulated, and it was impossible at times when the local fire brigade opposed anyone visiting the vault. A natural safe deep inside a mountain does naturally not have emergency exits.

But occasionally, when new seeds come to the vault, the doors are opened for accredited journalists.

Even though I understood quickly the attention that the seed vault was about to get globally in 2008, I have to admit that I have never really been fascinated. It is neither part of Spitsbergen’s nature nor of its history nor is it connected to those who are living here today. Its context is not the arctic.

What does mankind actually prepare for here? What kind of catastrophes do we have to expect that can wipe out the genetic heritage of thousands of years of agriculture? You may as well say that you don’t really want to know. But it is worth noticing that the whole structure is located high enough above sea level to remain dry even in case all ice on earth was to melt.

Different countries deliver seed samples that represent the whole diversity of their crops, and they are stored near Longyearbyen under conditions that are supposed to make them last as long as by any means possible. The air temperature is strictly controlled and kept at -18°C. Hardly visitors who might cause disturbances, several strong steel doors, surveillance cameras. The whole lot.

A hallway is leading about 150 metres into the mountain before you reach a large hall. The wall that is facing the hallway is not flat, but it is gently curved into the mountain. It is easy to miss this little detail or not to pay any attention to it, but there is a bizarre reason for it: even though nobody knows of any realistic scenario that involves an explosion in the hallway, the shock waves of any explosions would be reflected back into the hallway and thus not hit the actual storage chambers, keeping the seed samples out of harm’s way.

From this hall, double doors are leading to the actual chambers (a bit like in an Egyptian pyramid). Two out of these three chambers are still largely empty.

The door to the third one is covered with ice, as it is constantly cold in there. At the time being, it is probably the coldest part of Spitsbergen anywhere. A last fence separates the visitor from the treasure, a code opens the door. Behind that door, there are huge storage racks. And there, boxes, boxes and boxes.

A suspicious gap shows where the first samples have already been retrieved again. They were from Syria and more seeds are grown now of their sorts – in Morocco, where the Syrian seed vault had been moved before it could be destroyed in the war.

Gallery – The famous seed vault – 29 February, 2016

Click on thumbnail to open an enlarged version of the specific photo.

You are walking past those racks in awe. Institutions that are devoted to the science of rice, wheat or potatoes have preserved their valuable treasures here for, well, not eternity, but as close to as possible. Most countries are represented, only a minority is still missing. North and south America, Africa and Europe, Asia, Australia, they are all in there. Some wooden boxes catch the eye because of their simple appearance: north Korea. They signed the Spitsbergen Treaty just a few weeks ago, and now the are also here in the vault.

Some inconspicuous boxes draw my attention, and I am getting goosebumps just a moment later. The sender: The International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, in short ICARDA. Their address: Aleppo, Syria. In this town, now destroyed by Syrian and Russian bombs, someone had been collecting seed samples to preserve them to better days in the future, when people will hopefully be able again to grow them, to take care of the nutrition of their families, their people, their country. It seems a bizarre hope! The simple boxes in the storage racks inside the permafrost of an arctic mountain are symbols of this desparate hope. May their contents find their way back into Syrian soil when it is not corrugated by bombs, but by ploughs!

The seed vault left a strong impression on me, that is for sure.

Living house in Longyearbyen in danger of collapse: evacuation

Longyearbyen is currently having tough times, especially if you happen to live in the wrong house: after the catastrophic destruction of 11 houses and the loss of two lives during an avalanche before Christmas, the old hospital had to be evacuated very quickly last week. The old hospital (gamle sykehuset) is near the Spitsbergen-Hotel (formerly Hotel Funken) upvalley from the centre. It was built in 1954 and converted to a living house with 16 flats in 1997.

More recently, the building had shown signs of movement such as minor cracks in walls and shifting angles – nothing that caused any greater concern, but it caught enough attention to ask for the report of a civil engineer. The result came Thursday last week and it hit the inhabitants like a hammer: at 4 p.m. people were told that they had to leave their homes until 10 p.m. the same day. Anything they were unable to remove from their homes would be out of reach for some time, as it was not allowed to enter the building at all from then on, initially.

Currently, the inhabitants get permission to enter their homes under restrictions to retrieve their belongings as much as possible. Some have already offered their belongings for sale or even for free to anyone who is able to pick it up.

The building is in danger of collaps, but when this may or may not happen is not known. It may collapse today or stand for another year or more. But it is not expected that people will be able to move back.

For the inhabitants, who are mostly the owners of their homes, this came as a total shock and, in some cases, it is likely to be a complete economical disaster.

The local administration (lokalstyre) has offered temporary accommodation to those concerned, but only for a couple of weeks. Not a lot of time for every for everybody to find new homes.

The old hospital (gamle sykehuset) lies within a calmer dwelling area a bit away from downtown Longyearbyen. Currently, it is not quite as calm there: the inhabitants were evacuated on very short notice last week.

The old hospital (gamle sykehuset) in Longyearbyen

Pyramiden – February 2016

After our arctic weekend in Spiceborough (Würzburg, haha) things happened quickly: from the presentation screen to the train station, train, airport, plane, airport, hotel, airport, plane, and then suddenly … Spitsbergen. Stop, before I got that far I got a brief glimpse of mainland Norway’s northernmost coast. In the far background, you can almost see the North Cape (use a bit of fantasy and then you will see it), but this long, narrow island under the wing tip and a little bit to the right, that is Fugløya. We will be sailing there in late May with Antigua and then set course for Bear Island … but that is another story, a summer story. First, arctic winter. Although it is a strange winter, with little snow and very little ice in the west coast fjords. Some scientists believe that it may have to do with El Niño, the temporary change ocean currents in the Pacific, which has consequences for the climate of the whole globe. But it would be hard not to think of longer-lasting climate change as well. Of course, there have always been bad ice years every now and then. But the long-term tendency? That is pretty clear.

Gallery – Pyramiden – February 2016

Click on thumbnail to open an enlarged version of the specific photo.

I am joining a camera team. My job is not in front of the camera this time, but behind. One of our first trips takes us to Pyramiden. Fascinating as always, but different: parts of the place are a skating rink. Very little snow, lots of ice. And no Sascha. But he will be back within a few days. We have been to Pyramiden even before Sascha came! Yoho!

North Korea signs Svalbard Treaty

While North Korea is provoking the world by testing nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, the regime has signed the Svalbard Treaty on January 25 without much public attention. This treaty, which was signed in 1920 in Versailles and came into force in 1925, gave Norway sovereignty over the Spitsbergen archipelago (the original treaty document does not have the name Svalbard) while maintaining rights of signatory governments and their citizens to be economically and scientifically active without the need for a general permission. One of the consequences is that Spitsbergen is, in contrast to mainland Norway, not part of the Schengen Treaty area.

Svalbard is not unknown in the far east: especially in Thailand, people are quite aware of this unique job opportunity that does not require residence or work permits. The third-largest population group in Longyearbyen are Thai people, which have been forming an important part of the social and economic structure of the town for many years by now.

It is not known if the North Korean regime plans their admission to the treaty to be followed by any practical steps or any kind of presence. North Korea is also member state of the Antarctic Treaty (without voting rights). As far as known, the only North Korean activity in Antarctica was the participation of some scientists in a Soviet expedition in 1989/90.

What is Kim Jong Un doing in Svalbard? Creepy duo in Pyramiden (photo composition).

Kim in Svalbard

Source: The Independent Barents Observer

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