I was excited to get the chance to cover the seed vault’s opening ceremony – involving the placing of seed samples representing more than a quarter of a million crop strains onto the facility’s shelves. What I didn’t expect was that I would be expected to help.
As we arrived for the official ceremony and were ushered inside the entrance to the tunnel, everyone was given a box containing seed samples to carry down to the vaults themselves. As I dropped mine off I was handed a ticket informing me that I had just delivered a consignment of mung bean strains from India. It was surreal moment, thinking about Indian agriculture while painfully aware that the temperature was around 10 degrees below zero (later on, while performing some more conventional journalistic duties, the ink in my ballpoint pen froze while I was trying to take a quote from a Kenyan environmentalist. I reflected that she probably felt even colder than I did).
The opening itself was a more glitzy affair than your typical scientific get-together, featuring presidents, prime ministers and Norwegian TV stars. European Union president Jose Manuel Barroso described the vault as a “frozen garden of Eden”. We then watched some footage of the seeds being placed on the shelves, on a giant screen made of polished blocks of ice.
The photocall outside the vault later on was rendered somewhat less than pleasant by the howling wind and driving snow. Despite the media-friendly ceremony, the vault was built here because seed collections need to be kept frozen. And I can vouch that this is very appropriate place to keep cold.
As we fought through our interviews in the biting cold, the delegates were entertained by the world’s most northerly children’s choir. Although as this fascinating wikipedia list shows, virtually everything counts as the world’s most northerly in a place like Svalbard.
All pictures: M. Hopkin / Nature