Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Global Seed Vault is actually a reminder that the world is always ending.

 the Global Seed Vault on the Svalbard archipelago (is) part of a frigid cluster of islands far north of Norway where polar bears outnumber human residents. It’s a destination I first discovered in Lauren Redniss’ remarkable illustrated study of weather, Thunder and Lightning. There, she writes, you’ll find the vault, a reinforced and heavily secured tunnel, built into a frozen mountain. It contains hundreds of thousands of unique samples of agricultural crops and serves as a backup repository for seeds from more local vaults around the world. The collection is so inclusive that, as of 2016, virtually every country was represented within.

In photographs, the vault’s exterior is strikingly beautiful, thanks in large part to the haunting crystalline light installation by Dyveke Sanne above the entrance. When Redniss draws the vault, though, she emphasizes just how small it is, a tiny gray wedge emerging out of the endless white expanse of the mountain. It’s an image of resilience in the face of almost overwhelming odds, a reminder that, much as our species is capable of self-annihilation, we somehow incline toward survival.

Sometimes, kept awake by my work, I would tell myself stories of Svalbard. They always began the same: Long after the fall of industrial civilization, an adventurer would discover mention of the Seed Vault in the ruins of an ancient library. Gathering a ragtag crew and building a makeshift longship, she would sail north, in search of treasures that might help her people learn to farm again. Along the way, she would battle pirates and dodge errant ice flows. My adventurer never arrived at the vault: The mere knowledge that it was there, that she was traveling toward it, was reassuring enough to lull me asleep.

I’m hardly alone in imagining Svalbard as a source of optimism. As Redniss notes, this remote locale is sometimes described as a “doomsday vault,” a buffer against our own radical fragility. One representative CNN report on the site from 2015 frames it in these very terms, calling it “our insurance policy” and quoting a source who claims that it would allow us to “recreate agriculture in the world.” A more recent Gizmodo article, similarly, discusses a new deposit to the vault under the headline, “Scientists Add 50,000 Seeds to Arctic Doomsday Vault Because Everything Is Awful.”

Such language is understandable: Redniss quotes a 2008 statement from the vault’s parent institutions holding that its contents would remain frozen for 200 years even in the event of “worst-case scenarios for global warming.” Heavily reinforced as it is, it also seems like the sort of place that could survive more violent conflicts too—in the unlikely event that any battle found its way that far north. The project’s progenitor, agriculturalist Cary Fowler, notes in the conclusion to his book Seeds on Ice that he’s sometimes asked whether the facility could endure a nuclear blast. “My glib answer to such questions is that it depends on how big the bomb is,” he writes. “Tellingly, no depositor, scientist, journalist, or politician who has ever gone down into the Seed Vault has emerged to question the safety of its contents.”

Though such facts are reassuring, the Svalbard vault was never really designed to support life after the end—at least not in the singular, definitive sense that “the end” suggests. As Fowler stresses in Seeds on Ice, the vault was envisioned not out of an obsession with “doomsday” but in a more “pragmatic” spirit. It exists in an ongoing relationship with scores of local seed vaults around the globe, helping them protect their critical contents against the risk of more regional and immediate disasters: floods, power failures, violent uprisings, and so on… read more: