The germ of a good story

Svalbard is an Arctic archipelago midway between Norway and the North Pole. Its symbol is a yellowish-white poppy.

Svalbard-poppyMost people know the name Svalbard (if at all) from Philip Pullman’s extraordinary trilogy His Dark Materials:

“And so the four travellers sailed on, sleeping in the ice-encrusted balloon, towards the rocks and glaciers, the fire-mines and the ice-forts of Svalbard.”

Svalbard may have been discovered as early as the 12th century. Norse legends refer to a land known as Svalbarð – literally “cold shores” – although this may have been a part of eastern Greenland. The Dutch navigator Willem Barentsz (after whom the Barents Sea is named) made the first undisputed discovery of Svalbard in 1596, attempting to find a Northern Sea Route to the Pacific. In 1604, an English ship landed on Bear Island to hunt walrus and annual expeditions followed.

Today Svalbard is a tourist destination where in summer there is hiking, kayaking, and boat trips and in winter snowmobile safaris and dog sledding. But located deep inside a mountain one of the smaller islands is a not-so-secret vault that cost £5m to build and which offers permanent protection for the world’s food crops.

Svalbgard(1)The Svalbard Global Seed Vault opened in February 2008 and was immediately christened the “Doomsday” seed bank. A bomb-proof concrete bunker was encased in permafrost, 130 meters-deep inside the sandstone of a mountain. Its purpose was to store copies of seeds housed in more than 1,400 gene banks worldwide, so that should calamity strike, Svalbard’s seeds would replenish those collections – and therefore save humanity from absolute famine.

Running the length of the Vault’s exterior flat roof and down its facade to the doors of the building’s concrete entry is a work of art by Norwegian artist Dyveke Sanne. The roof and vault entrance are filled with highly reflective stainless steel, mirrors, and prisms. The installation acts as a beacon, reflecting polar light in the summer months, while in the winter, a some 200 fibre-optic cables produce a muted greenish-turquoise and white light.

Svalbard(2)The Vault is owned by the Norwegian government and maintained by the Global Crop Diversity Trust (GCDT) and the Nordic Genetic Resources Center. The GCDT says permafrost and thick rock ensure that, even in the case of a power cut, the seed samples remain frozen. Known for its collection of global food crop seeds, the Vault has now accepted a consignment of Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) and Norway spruce (Picea abies) seeds collected from natural forests in Finland and Norway, selected because the trees play an important role, economically, ecologically and socially.

While commentators have emphasized the Vault’s utility in the event of a major regional or global catastrophe, it will be more frequently accessed when gene banks lose samples due to mismanagement, accidents, or natural disasters. In recent years, the national seed bank of the Philippines was damaged by flooding and later destroyed by fire and the seed banks of Afghanistan and Iraq have been lost completely.

The Svalbard Vault is probably safer than the U.S. Gold Bullion Depository at Fort Knox, whose exact contents have not been officially audited since the early 1930s. In contrast, it is widely known that the Vault contains more than 500,000 samples – a kind of Noah’s ark of seeds. Given climate change and the possibility of drought and famine, how long before some megalomaniac raids the Vault in order to sell the seeds to the highest bidder? Sounds like the germ of a plot for a James Bond film…


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