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.