(THE GUARDIAN) Suzanne Goldenberg — One Tuesday last winter, in the town nearest to the North Pole, Robert Bjerke turned up for work at his regular hour and looked at the computer monitor on his desk to discover, or so it seemed for a few horrible moments, that the future of human civilisation was in jeopardy.
The morning of 16 December 2014 was relatively mild for winter in Svalbard: -7.6C with moderate winds. The archipelago, which lies in the Arctic ocean, is under Norway’s control, but it is nearly twice as far from Oslo as it is from the North Pole. The main town, Longyearbyen, has many unexpected comforts – tax-free liquor and cigarettes, clothing stores and a cafe with artisan chocolates shaped like polar bears and snowflakes. For Bjerke, who works for the Norwegian government’s property agency, Statsbygg, the cold and isolation were the big attraction when he moved there. Bjerke loved the stillness, and getting out into that big white Arctic wasteland on his snowmobile; so much so that he signed on for a second posting at Svalbard a decade or more after his first stint. But when Bjerke arrived at the office, he was looking forward to spending Christmas with his wife and three children near Oslo.
Statsbygg’s green industrial-style building sits on a hill overlooking the town and the inky blue waters of a fjord. It is a stunning view, but that day, the monitor commanded Bjerke’s attention. In the most important property under his care – the Svalbard Global Seed Vault – the temperature reading was off. The vault was too warm.
Since 2008, the Svalbard seed vault and its guardians have been entrusted by the world’s governments with the safekeeping of the most prized varieties of crops on which human civilisation was raised. That morning, it contained the seeds of nearly 4,000 plant species – more than 720,000 individual plastic-sheathed samples. The site was built to be disaster-proof: 130 metres up the mountain in case of sea-level rise, earthquake resistant, and with a natural insulation of permafrost to ensure the contents were kept frozen for decades to come.