Blog Archive for the ‘Millennial Precedent’ Category

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Craters & Mudrock: Tools for Imagining Distant Future Finlands

Posted on Tuesday, July 5th, 02016 by Vincent Ialenti
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 Lake LappajärviLake Lappajärvi (Photo Credit: Hannu Oksa)
About 73 million years ago a meteorite crashed into what is now Finland’s Southern Ostrobothnia region. Today, serene Lake Lappajärvi rests in the twenty-three kilometer wide crater made in the distant past blast’s wake. Locals still enjoy boating to Lappajärvi’s Kärnänsaari: an island formed by the Cretaceous meteorite collision’s melt-rock. Paddling there is an encounter with Finland’s landscape’s deep history.

Lappajärvi has caught the attention of safety case experts working on radioactive waste management company Posiva Oy’s underground dump for used-up nuclear fuel at Olkiluoto, Western Finland. These experts are tasked with predicting how Posiva’s repository will interact with the region’s rocks, groundwater, ecosystems, and populations throughout nuclear waste’s multi-millennial time spans of dangerous radioactivity. From 02012 to 02014, I spent thirty-two months in Finland conducting anthropological research on how safety case experts see the world, how they relate to one another, and how they reckon with various spans of time in their professional lives.

When I returned to my home institution Cornell University in August 02014, I wrote a three-article series for NPR’s Cosmos & Culture blog. In it I described how safety case experts envisioned Finnish landscapes changing over the next ten thousand years. I explained how they study a present-day ice sheet in Greenland and a uranium deposit in Southern Finland as analogues to help them think about Finland’s far future ice sheets and nuclear waste deposits. I suggested that, in this moment of global environmental uncertainty some call the Anthropocene, it becomes a pressing societal task to embrace long-termist “deep time thinking.”

I continue this line of thought here by exploring how safety case experts study prehistoric places – like Lappajärvi crater-lake – to forecast how Finland will change one million years hence. I present these prehistoric places as tools for imagining distant future worlds. I advocate that societies at large use these tools to do intellectual exercises, imagination workouts, or thought experiments to cultivate their own deep time thinking skills. Doing so is crucial on a damaged planet wracked by environmental crisis.

Safety case experts make mathematical models of how the Olkiluoto repository might endure or fall apart in the extreme long-term. They assess the nuclear waste dump’s physical strengths. This is the crux of their work. However, they also develop more qualitative, speculative, quirky approaches in their Complementary Considerations report. A hodgepodge of scientific evidence and PR tools aimed at persuading various audiences of the facility’s safety, this report plays a supporting role in their broader safety argument. And it contains a fascinating thought experiment: a section called “The Evolution of the Repository System Beyond A Million Years in the Future” (p197-200).

OlkiluotoFinland’s nuclear waste repository at Olkiluoto (Photo Credit: Posiva Oy)
Complementary Considerations explains how Lappajärvi crater-lake kept its form throughout numerous past Ice Age glaciation and post-Ice Age de-glaciation periods. It tells a story of “fairly stable conditions and slow surface processes” over millions of years. In light of this, safety case experts expect only limited erosion and landmass movement throughout the repository’s multimillion-year futures. Lappajärvi’s deep histories are, in this way, taken as windows into Olkiluoto’s deep futures. From this angle, safety case experts argue that Posiva’s repository can, like Lappajärvi’s crater, withstand the waxing and waning of future Ice Ages’ ice sheets advancing and retreating.

Safety case experts also use prehistoric Littleham mudstone in Devon, England as a tool for forecasting Finland’s far futures. In Devon one can find copper that has survived over 170 million years without corroding away. The copper was long encased in the sedimentary rock. Complementary Considerations predicts a similar fate for the huge copper canisters Posiva will use to secure Finland’s nuclear waste. It also suggests that – because Littleham mudstone is more abrasive to copper than is the bentonite clay to surround Posiva’s canisters – the canister copper might see even rosier futures.

Safety case experts see the distant pasts of mudstone and copper in England as tools for envisioning the distant futures of bentonite and canisters in Finland. They see the distant pasts of a Southern Ostrobothnian crater-lake as tools for envisioning the distant futures of an Olkiluoto repository’s local geology. Deep time forecasts are, in this way, made through techniques of analogy. Visions of far future worlds emerge from analogies across time (extrapolating from long pasts to reckon long futures) and analogies across space (extrapolating across distant locales sometimes thousands of miles apart).

Yet, as safety case experts and their critics both cautioned me, one should not take these deep time analogies too seriously. There are, of course, limits to what, say, native copper in mudrock in Devon can really tell us about manufactured copper pieces in clayin Olkiluoto. Differences between repository conditions and these prehistoric places are, for many, simply too vast to make reasonable analogies between them.

But I am only half-interested in whether these techniques ought to persuade us of Posiva’s repository’s safety. I let the engineers, geologists, chemists, metallurgists, ecosystems modelers, and regulatory authorities sort that out. Instead, I find a unique intellectual opportunity in them. I wonder: can safety case experts’ techniques be retooled to help populations reposition their everyday lives within broader horizons of time? Can farsighted organizations like The Long Now Foundation help inspire general long-term thinking?

One does not have to be a Nordic nuclear waste expert to benefit from the deep time toolkits I present here. An educated public can too reflect on how analogical reasoning can stretch one’s imaginative horizons further forward and backward across time. For example, many drive through rural regions where stratigraphic rock layers are visible on highways carved into rocky hills. When doing so, why not visualize what the surrounding landscape might have looked like in each of the past times the rock faces’ layers respectively represent? Are the imageries that come to mind drawn from forest, mountain, desert, or snowy environments out there in the world today? What analogical resources did your mind tap to imagine distant past worlds? What might these landscapes’ far futures look like if they were to have, say, Sahara-like conditions? What about Amazonian rainforest-like conditions?

Posiva FacilityThe tunnel into Posiva’s underground research facility ONKALO (Photo Credit: Posiva Oy)
Straining to imagine present-day landscapes in such radically different states – in ways inspired by encounters with the deep time of Earth’s everyday environments – can be an intellectual calisthenics strengthening one’s long-termist intuitions. It can serve as an imaginative mental workout for prepping one’s mind for better adopting the farsightedness necessary to think more clearly about today’s climate change, biodiversity, Anthropocene, sustainability, or human extinction challenges.

Scenes in which radically long time horizons enter practical planning, policy, or regulatory projects – with Finland’s nuclear waste repository safety case work as but one example – can be sources of tools, techniques, and inspiration for thinking more creatively across wider time spans. And groups that advocate long-termism like The Long Now Foundation have a key role to play in disseminating these tools, techniques, and inspirations publically in this moment of planetary uncertainty.

Vincent Ialenti is a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow and a PhD Candidate in Cornell University’s Department of Anthropology. He holds an MSc in “Law, Anthropology & Society” from the London School of Economics.

Member Discount for “Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art”

Posted on Friday, October 23rd, 02015 by Andrew Warner
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Long Now is proud to be a co-partner with YBCA in showing “Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art”. The film will be shown at 7:30 PM on Thursday October 29 and 2:00 PM on Sunday November 1 at YBCA’s Screening Room.

Troublemakers unearths the history of land art, featuring a cadre of renegades who sought to transcend the limitations of painting and sculpture by producing earthworks on a monumental scale. Iconoclasts who changed the landscape of art forever, these revolutionary, antagonistic creatives risked their careers on radical artistic change and experimentation, and took on the establishment to produce art on their own terms. The film includes rare footage and interviews which unveil the enigmatic lives and careers of storied artists Robert Smithson (Spiral Jetty), Walter De Maria (The Lightning Field), and Michael Heizer (Double Negative). (2015, 72 min, digital)

Long Now Members get $8 discounted tickets to the screening, check your email for instructions on how to reserve your discounted member tickets. Troublemakers will be shown in other cities as well, check here for your local screening.

2,000-Year Old Termite Mounds Found in Central Africa

Posted on Friday, August 28th, 02015 by Charlotte Hajer
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Much like ants, termites are a testament to the adage that a whole is greater than the sum of its parts. A single termite is an almost translucent creature, no more than a few millimeters long. But put several thousand of them together, and they become capable of building expansive structures, some reaching up as high as 17 feet.

Moreover, a recent discovery suggests that some termite mounds are not only very tall, but also very old. A joint Belgian-Congolese team of geologists carbon-dated a set of four mounds in the Congo’s Miombo Woods, and found them to be between 680 and 2200 years old. Though the oldest of these had been abandoned centuries ago, the researchers infer from their findings that some species of termites can inhabit one and the same structure for several hundreds of years. This far exceeds the lifespan of any one colony (which matches that of its queen), suggesting that a kind of intergenerational inheritance passes the mound from one queen to the next.

Swarm intelligence, it seems, leads not only to highly organized labor and solid engineering, but also to long-term thinking.

No Apocalypse Necessary

Posted on Monday, October 14th, 02013 by Austin Brown
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Writing for Aeon Magazine, Colin Dickey, visited the Svalbard Global Seed Vault and discusses the apocalyptic rhetoric often associated with the project. He points out that apocalyptic thinking, while sometimes an effective motivator, can be a barrier to long-term thinking.

This obsession with impending disaster suggests that we see nature on a particularly human, individual scale. When we think of environmental damage and the human impact on the ecosystem, we think almost exclusively in the short term. The millennium, be it religious or environmental, is always coming the day after tomorrow.

Exploring the surrounding environment, he marvels at how little human history has transpired in this remote place and yet how well what has happened there has been preserved. Today’s apocalyptic narratives put nature in the role of a vengeful god, but Dickey finds hints of salvation in Svalbard’s landscape. The seed vault, he points out, isn’t primarily a reaction to imminent disaster, but rather a hedge against slow-moving trends threatening crop-diversity and it utilizes the naturally cryogenic Arctic to its advantage.

Sometimes what seems like a panicked gasp for breath is something else entirely. The lessons of Svalbard are more complex than the simple, immediate apocalypse intimated by the hype surrounding the seed vault…

… A proper relationship to nature must involve a sense of stewardship, to be sure, and a willingness to work for a better tomorrow. But it might also do well to be stripped of a histrionic sense of perpetual catastrophe. Places such as Svalbard can help us to think on a much longer, deeper scale — one in which we are peripheral characters in a drama taking aeons to unfold.

Read Deep Chill, by Colin Dickey

Alexander Rose Visits Ise Shrine Reconstruction Ceremony

Posted on Thursday, October 3rd, 02013 by Austin Brown
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Long Now Executive Director Alexander Rose, also the Project Manager for the 10,000-Year Clock, collects inspiring examples (or in some cases, failures) of long-term thinking, architecture and design. In a talk called Millennial Precedent, he discussed some of these examples and the lessons he draws from them. Among them is a Japanese shrine in the city Ise.

Established an estimated 2,000 years ago, the shrine’s name “Jingu” literally means simply “the shrine.” Few structures on the planet can claim to have stood as long as Ise’s shrine, but the way it has managed to edure is singular. Rather than being constructed at monumental scale, or of immutable materials, the modest thatched-roof and wood structure is ritualistically rebuilt every 20 years. It’s secret isn’t heroic engineering or structural overkill, but rather cultural continuity.

02013 is a reconstruction year and the Shikinen Sengu ceremony marks this milestone. Alexander Rose will attend and share his experiences on our Twitter feed.

This essay by Junko Edahiro provides some great background on the shrine’s origins and long life:

The main sanctuary buildings follow the style of grain warehouses in the Yayoi Period (about 300 BC to 300 AD), which were used to store seed rice for next year and food in case of famine. Should these stocks run out, it would cause serious disruption, so grain warehouses were vital for protecting the people’s lives.

This kind of grain warehouse was normally supported by more than a dozen pillars sunk directly into the ground and had a thatched roof. A great deal of rain usually falls in Japan’s early-summer monsoon, and as the thatched roof absorbs rainwater it becomes heavier. The heavy roof presses down on the walls, and this closes gaps between the wall boards, keeping the inside dry. In summer, the roof dries out and becomes lighter, allowing air to pass through the building and this also keeps it dry. Thus, the roof and pillars function together like a living organism to securely protect the seed rice from moisture and pests.

The only way to support a thatched roof designed to increase in weight is to set the pillars directly into the ground. However, with this method, the pillars and the thatched roof eventually start to rot. Thus, the inevitable solution was to reconstruct these warehouses every 20 to 30 years. However, the life-giving seed rice could not be protected if the rebuilding process started only after the old warehouses could no longer be used. Thus, periodic reconstruction of these structures probably became customary, leading eventually to the Sengu ceremonies of Jingu Shrine in Ise, symbolizing buildings that protect life.

Read on… (and keep an eye on @longnow!)

The Apollo Goodwill Disc

Posted on Thursday, August 9th, 02012 by Alex Mensing
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On July 20, 01969, humans landed on the surface of the moon for the first time. But since only two of us got to go, NASA sent a message “FROM PLANET EARTH” in the rest of humanity’s stead. The message wasn’t a letter written in ink and paper, though. It was a thin silicon disc, with messages from various world leaders etched into its surface at a microscopic scale.  On the recent anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing, Steve Jurvetson posted photographs of some Apollo 11 artifacts, including the Goodwill Disc. Jurvetson writes on his Flickr page:

The story of the rushed creation of the disc is fascinating, as are the messages embedded in this interplanetary time capsule.

The concept started in June, 1969, and it was a politically charged project, in the midst of the Cold War and the Vietnam War. On June 27, NASA telephoned the state department, and got the unprecedented permission to contact the foreign chiefs of state to deposit a message on the moon. This was 19 days before launch. They were asked to compose and send typed and scribed letters to the U.S. (they came by telegram and mail).

But NASA did not know how they would store the messages so that they could last thousands of years in the harsh temperatures, solar radiation, and cosmic rays on the lunar surface. So they approached the supplier of some of the most advanced technology on Apollo – the nascent semiconductor industry.

Sprague manufactured 53,000 components on the Apollo 11 spacecraft and many more for the ground support equipment. The engineers chose silicon for the storage medium because of the density of storage and the stability of silicon over temperature in a vacuum.

You can read the text of the goodwill messages on Wikipedia, as well as on the original 01969 NASA description, which also explains a bit about the fabrication method.

Forty years later, The Long Now Foundation’s Rosetta Disk uses remarkably similar technology to provide a durable record of the world’s human languages:

For the extreme longevity version of the Rosetta database, we have selected a new high density analog storage device as an alternative to the quick obsolescence and fast material decay rate of typical digital storage systems. This technology, developed by Los Alamos Laboratories and Norsam Technologies, can be thought of as a kind of next generation microfiche. However, as an analog storage system, it is far superior. A 2.8 inch diameter nickel disk can be etched at densities of 200,000 page images per disk, and the result is immune to water damage, able to withstand high temperatures, and unaffected by electromagnetic radiation. This makes it an ideal backup for a long-term text image archive. Also, since the encoding is a physical image (no 1’s or 0’s), there is no platform or format dependency, guaranteeing readability despite changes in digital operating systems, applications, and compression algorithms.


(via BoingBoing)

Ancient Legend Saves Lives of Descendants

Posted on Wednesday, April 11th, 02012 by Charlotte Hajer
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Sometimes technology fails – but luckily, collective memory can step in to lend a hand.

In a recent LA Times article, José Holguín-Veras writes about an old legend that saved a small island community in Japan from perishing in the tsunami that followed the earthquake of March 02011. The quake had toppled their tsunami warning system, but when villagers saw the approaching waters, a lesson passed down from their ancestors told them what to do.

“A millennium ago, the residents of Murohama, knowing they were going to be inundated, had sought safety on the village’s closest hill. But they had entered into a deadly trap. A second wave, which had reached the interior of the island through an inlet, was speeding over the rice paddies from the opposite direction. The waves collided at the hill and killed those who had taken refuge there. To signify their grief and to advise future generations, the survivors erected a shrine.”

1,000 years later, those descendants knew not to make the same mistake, and bypassed the hill in favor of higher ground a bit further away.

We’ve written before about ancient tsunami warning systems in Japan, as examples of long-term thinking that helped communities learn from lessons of the past. The work of these Japanese ancestors illustrates the value of preserving our collective knowledge for the good of the future – and reminds us that local culture itself can be a durable archive of wisdom.

Alexander Rose at Chabot Space & Science Center March 16

Posted on Wednesday, March 14th, 02012 by Austin Brown
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Long Now Executive Director and 10,000-year Clock Project Manager Alexander Rose will discuss the ongoing construction of the 10,000-year Clock in western Texas at the Chabot Space & Science Center Friday night, March 16th. He’s appearing at Chabot’s monthly Night School, where,

students of life can explore, imagine, create and mingle in an incredibly inspiring and magical setting. Themes and activities reflect current events, favorite pastimes and playful experiences, each celebrating the unique, resourceful and exciting community of the East Bay.

Get back to school and unleash your inner nerd, spark a new hobby, hobnob with artists and experts, enjoy a show, and relax and contemplate your place in the universe!

The evening includes plenty of futuristic fun & games, music from DC Miggy Pop, several talks, a planetarium show, and more. The hours are 7pm – 11pm & tickets are $12.

Long Now Media Update

Posted on Monday, November 21st, 02011 by Danielle Engelman
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Alexander Rose’s “Millennial Precedent”

There is new media available from our monthly series, the Seminars About Long-term Thinking. Stewart Brand’s summaries and audio downloads or podcasts of the talks are free to the public; Long Now members can view HD video of the Seminars and comment on them.

Svalbard Seed Vault trip report

Posted on Monday, July 25th, 02011 by Alexander Rose - Twitter: @zander
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Svalbard February 02011, (most photos, video and sound recordings by Steve Rowell)

The Planning:

Over the last couple years artist Steve Rowell has been planning a project to document the Svalbard Global Seed Vault as part of a larger project about the beginnings and future of agriculture.  The Seed Vault is designed with a 1000 year design life to store back-up samples of every food crop seed in the world.  About a year ago Rowell contacted me to see if Long Now would be interested in participating in his project.  I said that we would as long as I got to come along on one of the trips to Svalbard and meet the creators of the Vault.  The Norwegian government management of the vault required that Rowell also get participation from Scandinavian nations, specifically Norway as part of his project.  Over the last year he was able to secure funding and collaboration with a Norwegian and a Dutch artist, and with it an official invite to visit the Vault.  Long Now would cover our accommodations for this scouting trip, and I would cover my own flight.  The Seed Vault administrators seem to be a bit overwhelmed with the interest in the Vault.  They open the Vault about twice a year to deposit new seed stock and they are apparently inundated with requests to visit.  However the remoteness of the location and their limited time on site means they really don’t have time to give many tours.   But with persistence and the Scandinavian participation Steve was able to secure us the invite.  We quickly booked our complicated flights, and found accommodation in one of the few places to stay in winter.

The Journey:
On February 22nd I boarded a Lufthansa jet bound for Munich out of San Francisco.  I would be meeting Steve in Oslo the following evening as he was traveling from Washington DC.  It took three tries to fly out of Munich due to aircraft difficulties that resulted in me arriving at 1:30 am in Oslo.  After a couple hours of sleep I met Steve the next morning at the airport hotel breakfast area, and we boarded our SAS flight to Tromsø at the northern tip of Norway.  It was a rare clear day, and I was able to see the stunning fjords of Norway as we crossed the 66th Latitude into the Arctic circle.


In Tromsø we were asked to exit the plane and go through an ID check.  I think it has something to do with the unique treaty status of the Spitsbergen Archipelago where Svalbard is.  The Spitsbergen Treaty, ratified almost a century ago, gives Norway sovereignty over the area, but they have to grant completely equal access, immigration, and commercialization to any signing nation with minimal taxation.  This also means that there are a number of refugees on the island, and I suspect they want to keep track of them.

We re-boarded in Tromsø to find the plane completely packed.  Aside from it’s major coal mining activity and arctic scientific research, Svalbard is a winter tourist destination to see the northern lights and wildlife.  Crammed onto the plane were Swedish grandmothers, Russian coal miners, scientists and even a couple babies.  Everyone had shed the usually fashionable northern European winter-wear for serious expedition wear.  Huge gore-tex parkas with fur lined hoods and patches reading “Antarctic Survey 1996” abounded.  We landed in 30 mph crosswinds and driving snow.  The pilot was clearly used to the airport bringing the plane down fast, but touching down without even a bump.  We caught the local bus to our accommodation – Mary-Ann’s Polarrigg, and even glimpsed the Seed Vault perched just above the airport.

The town of Longyear was founded by an American from Massachusetts of the same name.  He bought the rights to a coal deposit from a Norwegian company and established one of the first permanent outposts on the island.  With the coming of the airport in the 70’s, Longyearbyen changed from a tiny mining town to a University town and adventure tourism destination.  I will not recount the history of Svalbard in any detail, it is well recorded by many sources including Wikipedia.  I do recommend The Future History of the Arctic by Emmerson for anyone interested in the bizarre and increasingly consequential future, present and past of the Arctic region.


Mary-Ann’s Polarrigg (entry shown above) known locally as “The Rigg” is a long row of prefab buildings from various eras, mostly leftover from the mining industry.  Mary-Ann the proprietor is an amazingly sweet lady who has filled the place with the wildest and weirdest eclectica to be found on Svalbard.  Stuffed polar bears and arctic foxes mingle with old mining equipment and incredible historic photos.  She is also the chef, preparing hearty Nordic breakfasts and dinners of local seal, trout, reindeer and of course… whale. (In Norway they have t-shirts with a picture of a whale and the tag line “Smart food for smart people”.

Our first two bone-chilling days on the island we spent touring around in a borrowed car from Mary-Ann as our appointment at the Vault was not until our third day.  There are only a few miles of road there, the longest runs of which service the airport and the coal mines.  We got a tour of the Polar University where every student is taught arctic survival and how to use a rifle.  Everyone on Svalbard is required to own a gun, and be trained in its use, for protection from polar bears.  Svalbard is the first place I have ever seen 20 year old students walking in and out of school with rifles slung over their shoulders.

There is a strange basic irony about Svalbard that we discovered on the University tour.  One of the main research topics and political focuses on the island is climate change and atmospheric pollutants.  While the Norwegian mainland gets all its electricity from clean hydro-electric power, the only coal fired power plant in Norway is actually on Svalbard.  But without this coal power, the island would have to evacuate in less than 48 hours.  On Svalbard coal equals life.

The Seed Vault:
Sunday was the scheduled day to visit the Vault, and that morning it was a white out blizzard.  We had been told that not even the Royalty of Norway were allowed in the actual seed vault, and to expect to only see the entry hallway.  Our guide at the University, a few days before, was shocked that we would even be allowed to see the hallway.  The drive up the switchbacks was a bit perilous in the snowstorm.  We had to stop multiple times as visibility dropped to zero.  We met our hosts Roland von Bothmar and Anders Nilsson of NordGen at the top of the road, and together approached the vault.  Apparently they had spent a lot of time the previous day cracking and melting ice off the door as it had been above freezing allowing water to run down, and then freezing the door shut as the evening temperatures dropped. (Note that there is a lot value to a design that sheds water away from hinges, seems, and especially locks.)  Their work had paid off though as they were able to open the door quickly and we all scrambled in out of the nearly horizontal snow stinging our faces.


The 320 feet of fluorescent lit down sloping entry hallway is separated into three equal sections.  This first section we enter into from the outside door is not completely sealed off from the outside air.  You can see where the permafrost meets the building in a sloping line of hoarfrost built up on the wall.  We move deeper toward the next door.  Roland asks us to watch out for the ice on the floor, apparently the freeze thaw cycle melts the frost on the walls which then runs down the floor and then freezes again, making the ramp treacherous.


On the other side of the door the hallway widens to a 20 foot diameter corrugated metal tube with a concrete floor.  Roland explains that this part of the vault has been shifting as the permafrost around us thaws and freezes.  Indeed the concrete on one side of the floor is cracking as evidence of this.  The wall at the end of this section is a new addition and is still covered in a tyvek like building wrap.


Once through this next doorway the floor curiously transitions to asphalt, possibly to allow more flexibility and water permeability.  There is a pump system and grating newly installed in the floor to deal with the water from the thawing frost.   All of these water and freeze-thaw issues have been discovered since the vault was finished in 02008. The walls and ceiling of this section are about 25 feet wide and tall.  The very rough surface is a product of the drilling and blasting into the loose local shist.  The rock has been stabilized with large bolts roughly every 4′, covered in shot-crete, and then a white paint.  This wall, ceiling and floor finish is the same for the rest of the vault, including the seed chambers.  This hallway terminates in a large concrete wall with a metal door in it, and there are a few other doors on the right hand side at the end of the hall.  Above are cable racks and the ever present ventilation tubes.  One set of the tubes has frost building up on each joint section, these are the cooling pipes for the seed vault bringing them down from today’s ambient -5C to the desired -18C.  We enter the doors on the right into a control room.  This area has desks and a PC and a sign in book.  The list of people who have signed in is impressive,  Everyone from UN president Ban Ki-moon to President Jimmy Carter, and… us.  I had assumed this was as far as we were going to get, but then Roland says that he is turning the lights on in the next section for us, and warns that camera lenses brought into the colder areas will fog up.  We leave a selection of lenses here, and pass through the third lock. (Sound recording in the last hallway section)


Through the doors the asphalt starts sloping back upward and we enter into a lateral access hall where you can see each of the three seed vault doors.  The doors are embedded in concrete walls blocking off each rough blasted chamber.  The central chamber, vault 2, is covered in a thick layer of frost, cracked away around the door from the recent depositing of this years seed stock.  The cooling pipes above are fully covered in thick frost here as well.  The only adornment in the whole space is a spear-like metal shape on the wall, a seed sculpture by a Japanese artist who donates these pieces to seed banks all over the world.

There is a shelf here with some plastic bins and seed samples of the types found in the vault.  Glass jars, vials and bags each containing labeled seeds from different seed banks around the world.  Now they use a standardized mylar zip lock bag and plastic bin.  However Roland points out the USDA submissions always use their own box, a cardboard one.  It turns out that this seed vault is the second one on Svalbard.  There was one created in the 01980s for just Scandinavian species which is inside a shipping container in one of the old coal mines.  It was sealed 30 years ago and Roland hasn’t even been there.  Roland explains that all the seeds arrive by cargo plane a week ahead of each deposit, upon arrival they use the airport x-ray machine to make sure there are only seeds being deposited (e.g. no bombs).  In the last 3 years since the vault opened they now have over 637,000 varieties in the vault, and they have not even filled up one chamber yet.  Roland also confirms what we learned from the University, that all the seeds here are edible crop seeds with one exception.  Through a partnership with the University at Svalbard they have stored about 60 varieties of plants from the Spitsbergen Archipelago, none of which are edible.


Roland also mentioned all the crackpot theories and stories people have about the vault – like the one where it is really all the big bio-tech companies trying to control the world food supply. These of course are not true in the least. It is a Norwegian government project run by a consortium of academic, government and non-profit scientific entities. The seeds remain the property of each donating country, and the manifest is public (you can go to the website and download it now if you like). Depositors can pull their seeds at anytime for any reason. So far no company has submitted GMO seeds, likely because of how much disclosure they would have to do around them as part of the process.  The really interesting question though is what happens if a country ceases to be a country, who then owns the seeds and the rights to access them? (Sound recording in the transverse tunnel)

Roland opens one of the empty vaults for us.  We shuffle into the air lock area and after the outer door is closed, the next door is opened.  This vault, number three, has no seeds or cooling system.  It is about 100 feet deep and 30 feet wide and tall.  Some of the same shelving used in the active vault is in here, along with the plastic bins ready for more seeds to be delivered.  Amazingly the thick stone wall shared with the active vault two is covered in frost.  Wires dangle from sensor equipment on each wall, and there is one spot you can see the fractured native shist where the shot-crete doesn’t quite meet the floor.  We also go into the other empty vault, number one, and it is similar, except it is completely empty.  We ask if the spaces were sterilized or treated in any way before the seeds go in.  Roland says that they are not, and that the mylar bags and the cold are all the seeds need.


Then to our surprise, Roland offers to open the active vault.  Jimmy Carter wasn’t even allowed into that vault.   We crowd close to the ice covered door, we need to let as little cold air out as possible.  Roland unlocks the door with one of only four keys in the world, and we hear the frost crack at the hinges.


We rush into the airlock, and the next door is opened.  This vault is COLD.  The difference between -5c and -18c (0F) is palpable.  The inside of my nostrils hurts and the skin on my face tightens.  Most of the space near the door is taken up by the cooling equipment.  Apparently this equipment was installed just 6 months ago to replace the original equipment that was less efficient, loud and blustery.  Ten feet in front of us is a locked gate, and ten feet beyond that are the shelves and shelves of boxes.  Each box is marked with the logo of a seed bank from a different nation, the USDA cardboard boxes are front and center in the second row of shelves.  We are allowed a few photos and video and are ushered quickly back out again.


After the visit I read some of the material we received.  It doesn’t go too much into the “why” of things, just what happened in the building process.  But what was apparent was that they had a very tight deadline, and I am not sure why.  Most of the decisions, location, contractors, and material choices were made solely for this expediency.  While it will likely be okay if people are there to maintain it, it seems some of the issues like the shist rock site, ferrous metal reinforced concrete, permafrost shifting and flooding, may require a lot of intervention to maintain the integrity of the vault.

I certainly learned a lot being here.  Mainly that even if you put your site in the hardest to reach place in the world, people will still want to come and visit it – in droves.  They did not design it for visiting, and are having to deal with this fact now.

We ended the day with a dinner up at Huset, the most northerly restaurant with a Michelin star.  We ate scallops and reindeer with Roland and Anders as well as a seed scientist from University of Arizona who was in town to deposit their collection of desert legume seeds from around the world.  What an amazing day.

Other Travel Notes:
Our last day here we finally got an opening in the weather.  We arranged a guided “skooter” (snowmobile) tour and our original plan was to visit the Russian coal outpost of Barentsburg, but after talking to some folks we switched it over to Temple Fjord.  I cannot recommend touring Svalbard this way enough.  We even saw the direct sun for the first time since our arrival when out on the fjord.  Be prepared for cold unlike anything you have ever experienced. Under the thick “skooter suit,” boots and helmet loaned to me by the guide I wore: expedition weight base layers, a complete down suit, a fleece, two pairs of thick socks, a neck gator and a balaclava.  I still got chilled to the point of numbness.  Any small chink in your armor, and the wind augmented by 50km/hr on the scooter cuts right to your bones.  We encountered a dutch two masted sail boat that purposefully traps itself in the sea ice each year there.  They operate it as a kind of outback adventure hotel.  Do not miss touring these outer areas, they are spectacular.


Some notes about clothing.  The Norwegian tradition of removing your “outside shoes” is honored almost everywhere on Svalbard.  Bring snow boots that are easily removable, and carry some slippers or flip flops around with you so you don’t end up in your socks everywhere.  The other pro-tip is to bring a pair of ski goggles with clear lenses (not dark tinted as you wont be able to see).  Even if you are walking 500 yards, you will be glad you did in a snow storm.  As you might expect bring lots of down, fleece and gore-tex layers.  Neck gators, balaclavas, mittens and glove liners are also a must.  It can rain, snow, blow 40 mph, and then turn to sunshine all within an hour.  Headlamp and even a little red flashing jogging light is also a great idea for walking around after dark (eg. after 3pm).


There are some excellent eating and drinking establishments on Svalbard.  The Michelin starred Huset up high in the valley is astonishingly good, (but pricey) and includes a wine list of over 1100 titles.  Also the pub in town next to the market has one of the largest single malt whiskey collections in all of Europe, not to be missed.  You should also stop by the Svalbard Museum, it has won several well earned exhibit design awards.  Likely one of the most interesting and informative small museums I have ever been to.


A general note that if coming in winter (which I do recommend) that you put at least a day or two of float in your schedule.  While you can do most things even in the worst weather here, it seems a bit silly to tour the fjords when you have 20 feet of visibility.  Also note that there are 4 months of the year where there it basically as dark as night.  We had plenty of indirect light on our trip at the end of February.


Living and travel costs in Scandinavia are expensive, but Svalbard is even more so.  Pretty much everything aside from water, reindeer, and polar bears has to be imported by air to Svalbard.  A personal pizza and drink can easily run $20-30, a simple dinner for two and a couple beers can come in well over a $100.  Simple accommodations even in the slow season are hard to book and expect to pay over $150-300/night.  The Polarrigg was nice as they have a full kitchen for guest use, and Mary-Anne let us use her vehicle several times at no charge.  There is a Radisson which is very central, a huge benefit as its a very short walk to most local services (you can walk from the Rig as well but it’s about 1/4 mile in often bad weather).  The funny thing though is some things cost less than on the mainland because of the unique tax status of Svalbard.  Alcohol is much cheaper here, basically US prices.


Like many Scandinavian and northern areas where alcoholism is rampant, the state controls the liquor stores here.  However Svalbard has the most control I have ever seen.  There is one liquor store, and each citizen’s purchases are allocated and recorded.  In addition visitors must present their plane ticket on which they write what you have bought to be sure you do not go above your personal allocation while there.  You can fly in with liquor though…