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Home → February, 2016

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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