If you’re already familiar with the Global Seed Vault and understand the crucial role it might play in the future of humanity, you can think of Cary Fowler’s new book as a beautiful coffee-table ornament — with the bonus of lots of informative, readable text.
If you’ve never heard of the vault, “Seeds on Ice: Svalbard and the Global Seed Vault”.can be your introduction to an extraordinary, farsighted venture.
The Global Seed Vault is a vast storehouse carved out of rock and ice on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, far north of the Arctic Circle. In it are half a billion seeds from around the world.
More important, it contains the traits found within the seeds: the genes that make one crop resistant to pests or enable another survive drought. The vault is meant to safeguard humanity against losing vital food stocks to extinction, natural disaster, nuclear war or climate change.
Fowler — a native of rural Tennessee who was trained as a sociologist and has worked for decades on behalf of global biodiversity — led the initial effort to create the seed vault and clearly sees this book as a summary of his life’s work. Besides the science involved in selecting and preserving seeds, he gives a fascinating account of the creation of the vault itself — selecting Svalbard because it was both geologically and politically stable, and offered year-round underground permafrost that could cheaply keep the seeds frozen; and the decision to design the wedge-shaped part of the vault that protrudes above the ice sheet so that it looked sculptural, a sort of work of art.
He notes the irony of preserving the future of edible plants in a region where virtually nothing grows. The book is illustrated with hundreds of photographs of the vault and the stunning Arctic environment in which it’s located.
And that is the only way you’re likely to see the vault, except through binoculars from the airport tower at the nearby town of Longyearbyen. Security is vital to the project, and visitors (except for seed donor organizations and the occasional diplomat or benefactor) are not allowed in.