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HomeArctic blog: Jan Mayen, Spitsbergen → The famous seed vault – 29 Febru­ary, 2016

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.



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last modification: 2016-09-21 · copyright: Rolf Stange