Other Sides Of Svalbard

Among the land-based activities available on Svalbard, glacier hiking and ice climbing are perhaps the most challenging — and rewarding. Just watch where you put your feet and your ice axe.

Starting 7+ years ago, each previous mention of Svalbard in our pages has focused on the vault until an article two years ago got us to look up and around. Now again this week we have good reason for looking beyond the vault. Marcus Westberg wrote an article, with stunning photos he took, Bearing Witness to Svalbard’s Fragile Splendor:

The strong summer sun melts the top layer of ice on Austfonna, Svalbard’s largest ice cap and Europe’s third-largest glacier, creating myriad gushing waterfalls.

A never-setting sun very quickly muddles one’s ability to tell time. This photograph was taken just before 11 p.m.; without a watch and regular mealtimes I could have easily mistaken it for any other time of day.

To visitors, the Norwegian archipelago can seem both ethereal and eternal. But climate change all but guarantees an eventual collapse of its vulnerable ecosystem.

Mesmerized, I would lean against the railing at the front of the ship, alone, for hours on end. Over the course of 10 days, no two moments were the same. The Arctic world was constantly shifting and changing around me as we slowly made our way through ice and open sea, past whales, walruses, birds and bears.

Except to keep track of mealtimes, watches were irrelevant; in the summer, this far north of the Arctic Circle, the sun never goes anywhere near the horizon. Continue reading

ICARDA, CGIAR & Future Food

Thanks to Helen Sullivan, as usual, for excellent reporting and clear implications:

A Syrian Seed Bank’s Fight to Survive

Scientists have raced to safeguard a newly precious resource: plants that can thrive in a changing climate.

The International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, known as icarda, is housed in a cluster of small buildings on a dusty property in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, halfway between Beirut and Damascus. Its facilities, surrounded by fields of experimental grain, include a laboratory, nurseries, and a gene bank—a storage facility in which tens of thousands of seeds have been carefully saved and catalogued.

When I first visited, on an autumn afternoon in 2019, staff members in the main building were counting, weighing, and sliding seeds into small packets. Continue reading

Another Look At Svalbard

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Melissa Schäfer

The seed vault has been covered in our pages so many times, that I thought I knew enough, and that plentitude made me almost skip this travel story. Having seen the Northern lights in my teen years, while working at a summer camp in Maine, with 40+ years perspective I can say with certainty that no travel experience comes close to that. I am a travel junky, and have had some profound travel experiences. Kelly McMasters makes me want to chase down that visual wonder that, try as I may, I cannot explain to anyone, and to combine it with some serious winter adventuring:

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Greeting the New Year In Earth’s Northernmost Settlement

In Svalbard, above the Arctic Circle, you can’t be born and you can’t be buried, but you can find renewal in the dark of winter.

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Melissa Schäfer

Few people have heard of Svalbard and even fewer have seen it. The isolated group of islands is an old mining settlement turned glacial adventuring outpost located 1,200 miles north of mainland Norway, one of the closest landmasses to the North Pole, along with Greenland and Nunavut. The approximately 2,200 inhabitants dotting the desolate tundra are itinerant, a mix of climate scientists, miners and globe-trotting explorers mostly from Russia, Scandinavia and Canada. There are more polar bears than people.

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The northern-most greenhouse dome in the world provides microgreens to a local restaurant. Melissa Schäfer

Historically, this archipelago was the isolated purview of turn-of-the-century airship explorers obsessed with finding the Northwest Passage; more recently Svalbard served as the fantastical setting for Phillip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy. Today, it is poised to be the next extreme vacation destination for tourists obsessed with climate change, wilderness and chasing the Northern Lights. Continue reading

Seeds of Change

Lebanese workers at the seed bank in Terbol. Mr. Shehadeh’s organization, Icarda, moved operations out of Syria after the war broke out. Credit Diego Ibarra Sanchez for The New York Times

How a Seed Bank, Almost Lost in Syria’s War, Could Help Feed a Warming Planet

TERBOL, Lebanon — Ali Shehadeh, a seed hunter, opened the folders with the greatest of care. Inside each was a carefully dried and pressed seed pod: a sweet clover from Egypt, a wild wheat found only in northern Syria, an ancient variety of bread wheat. He had thousands of these folders stacked neatly in a windowless office, a precious herbarium, containing seeds foraged from across the hot, arid and increasingly inhospitable region known as the Fertile Crescent, the birthplace of farming.

Mr. Shehadeh is a plant conservationist from Syria. He hunts for the genes contained in the seeds we plant today and what he calls their “wild relatives” from long ago. His goal is to safeguard those seeds that may be hardy enough to feed us in the future, when many more parts of the world could become as hot, arid and inhospitable as it is here. But searching for seeds that can endure the perils of a hotter planet has not been easy. It has thrown Mr. Shehadeh and his organization, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, or Icarda, squarely at a messy intersection of food, weather and war.

Icarda, though it received no state funding, was once known as a darling of the Syrian government. Based in Aleppo, its research had helped to make Syria enviably self-sufficient in wheat production. But a drive to produce thirsty crops also drained Syria’s underground water over the years, and it was followed by a crippling drought that helped to fuel the protests that erupted into armed revolt against the government in 2011.Icarda, in turn, became a casualty of the war. By 2014, the fighting drew closer to its headquarters in Aleppo and its sprawling field station in nearby Tal Hadya. Icarda’s trucks were stolen. Generators vanished. Most of the fat-tailed Awassi sheep, bred to produce more milk and require less water, were looted and eaten. Mr. Shehadeh and the other scientists eventually sent out what they could — including a few of the sheep — and fled, joining half the country’s population in exile. Continue reading

“Arks of the Apocalypse”

U.S. National Ice Core Laboratory, Lakewood, Colo. photo credit: Spencer Lowell for The New York Times

Thanks again to the New York Times for highlighting the global nature of this scientific “call to arms” to save not only data, but genetic and organic material as a back-up plan for future generations. From the Svalbard Global Seed bank in Norway, to sperm banks for coral, endangered wildlife, and even glacial ice – these archives are meant to provide both a life line to the future and answers about the past.

The fragility of each project is evident as Science itself has come under attack from current public policy, which doesn’t appear to see the irony of their denial in the face of facts about climate change.

It was a freakishly warm evening last October when a maintenance worker first discovered the water — torrents of it, rushing into the entrance tunnel of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a storage facility dug some 400 feet into the side of a mountain on a Norwegian island near the North Pole. A storm was dumping rain at a time of year when the temperature was usually well below freezing; because the water had short-circuited the electrical system, the electric pumps on site were useless. This subterranean safe house holds more than 5,000 species of essential food crops, including hundreds of thousands of varieties of wheat and rice. It was supposed to be an impenetrable, modern-day Noah’s ark for plants, a life raft against climate change and catastrophe.

A few Norwegian radio stations and newspapers reported the incident at the time, but it received little international attention until May, when it was becoming clear that President Trump was likely to pull the United States out of the Paris climate agreement. Suddenly the tidings from Svalbard were everywhere, in multiple languages, with headlines like “World’s ‘Doomsday’ Seed Vault Has Been Breached by Climate Change.” It didn’t matter that the flood happened seven months earlier, or that the seeds remained safe and dry. We had just lived through the third consecutive year of the highest global temperatures on record and the lowest levels of Arctic ice; vast swaths of permafrost were melting; scientists had recently announced that some 60 percent of primate species were threatened with extinction. All these facts felt like signposts to an increasingly hopeless future for the planet. And now, here was a minifable suggesting that our attempts to preserve even mere traces of the bounty around us might fall apart, too.

Continue reading

Seed Vault Deposit

We have shared a couple times in the past about the seed vault, but just now it has come to our attention again in this press release from last month, provided by The Crop Trust, which reminds us of the meta-agriculturalist Cary Fowler, whose 2009 Ted talk is worth another quarter hour after a quarter hour on the short film above:

MAJOR DEPOSIT TO WORLD’S LARGEST SEED COLLECTION IN THE ARCTIC OVERSEEN BY THE CROP TRUST | GOPRO SUPPORTS CROP TRUST WITH NEW VIDEO AND PLEDGE DRIVE

SVALBARD, NORWAY – 22 February 2017A major seed deposit critical to ensuring global food security was made to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in the Arctic Circle today. Continue reading

Opening the Arctic Vault

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault was inaugurated in 2008. The "doomsday vault" lies inside an Arctic mountain in the remote Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard. For the first time, scientists are taking some seeds out. PHOTO: John McConnico/AP

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault was inaugurated in 2008. The “doomsday vault” lies inside an Arctic mountain in the remote Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard. For the first time, scientists are taking some seeds out. PHOTO: John McConnico/AP

The ongoing civil war in Syria has led to the first-ever withdrawal from the Svalbard “doomsday” Global Seed Vault, a giant storage unit for plant seeds that’s tucked into the side of a frigid mountain in Norway. In the seven years since the Vault opened, hundreds of thousands of seed samples have gone into its icy tombs. And not one has come out—until now. This week the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas asked for the return of 325 little black boxes of seeds it had stored in the Svalbard vault. For many years, the center housed its own seed bank near Aleppo, Syria. Now, its scientists hope to use the Svalbard samples to regenerate that collection outside of their war-torn home.

Continue reading

Seed Vault, Conservation For The Long Run

Travels to the seed vault on top of the world

Travels to the seed vault on top of the world

In advance of a story of our own, albeit set in the tropics at our upcoming beach resort, on this same topic, we thank Conservation for the story  they offered in an earlier issue of their magazine about this seed vault way way north:

…One day in Svalbard lasts four months, and the sun never sets; one night lasts four months, and the sun never rises. The other four months consist mainly of either long days with short nights or long nights with short days. Here the equinoxes—the two days annually with 12 hours each of daylight and darkness—really mean something. But what does “a day” mean here, and how many are there in a year? Continue reading