Longyearbyen, on the remote Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, is most northerly place you can get to on a commercial flight. If you’re brave (or foolish) enough to want to go trekking to the North Pole (about 1,000 kilometres away), you have to go through here. But I’m not doing that – I’ve come here to watch the first seeds being put into a mountain bunker, with the aim of providing a backup copy of almost every crop there is.
So why is this snowy wasteland, where in late February it doesn’t even get properly light during the day, the location for the ‘Doomsday vault’ that is aimed at solving the world’s hunger problems? According to the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which made the decision and is putting up the money to run the seed vault, the reasons are fivefold:
1. Svalbard is Norwegian. And Norwegian politics are as stable as you like – a world away from the turbulent societies in the developing world that are home to many valuable seed collections.
2. Svalbard is cold. And that’s a big help when you want to (a) refrigerate seeds, and (b) not have problems with seeds escaping and germinating outside the vault.
3. Svalbard has one decent airport. And the seed vault is almost right next to it.
4. Svalbard is a pro-science society. There are lots of climate and Arctic ecology experts here, which affords the facility a lot of goodwill.
5. Svalbard is Norwegian (again). And the Norwegian agricultural ministry is a big advocate of efforts to conserve crop diversity.
So all looks set for the grand opening ceremony later today. I’ve been promised showbiz and spectacle, and singing from the world’s most northerly children’s choir. Watch this space.