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February 29: Day of Cold

Posted February 29, 2012 @ 7:03pm | by TravelWild

News from the North Pole on Leap Day 2012 includes the 4-year anniversary of the visionary Svalbard Seed Vault and the first annual Day of Cold celebration.

While there may be 50+ words to describe snow in Arctic nations, there are at least a few phrases to describe February 29: Leap Day, Bachelor’s Day and now, the Day of Cold.  Russian Arctic dwellers celebrate the  Day of Cold as a reminder that it’s not just polar bears that are threatened by climate change, but people are also dependent on the polar ice.

The languages of the Arctic nations have about 50 words to describe different types of snow. Since their childhood these people learn to distinguish between slightest details, shades and different types of snow. The cold weather is a prerequisite of the whole Arctic environment. Without it polar bears, seals, white whales and other Arctic sea mammals could not survive. The traditional way of living of the Arctic people would also be impossible without the cold weather.

The idea to celebrate the Day of the Cold emerged in a reindeer skin tent, a traditional house of the Arctic people, in a village located in the vicinity of the city of Naryan Mar in Russia’s polar region, head of the Center of Arctic Initiatives Matvey Chuprov says.

“We got together and decided that we needed a common public holiday which would unite peoples of the Arctic region and help them protect their interests, the environment we live in. We decided that it was time to stop fighting global warming and start “protecting” the cold instead.

Protecting something you cherish versus fighting its threats is a strategy that usually yields better success.

And the Global Seed Vault celebrates its accomplishments as it passes its fourth anniversary. A journalist with the Atlantic interviewed Cary Fowler, Executive Director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, tasked with maintaining the vault in collaboration with the Norwegian government.

Today’s fourth anniversary will bring several new seed shipments to the vault, including an ancient grain called amaranth, a favorite of the Aztecs and Incas, and a malting barley from the Pacific Northwest called “Klages,” which is used in many craft beers.

I talked to Cary about the vault’s anniversary, its importance, and the future of agriculture.

When I think about the seed vault, the first thing that stands out to me is that it’s really a technology of deep time, a way of coping with the kinds of events that happen on very broad time scales. Do you see any other technologies or institutions outside the world of agriculture as playing a similar role as yours?

Fowler: I haven’t given it a lot of thought, so I guess I would say no. We tried to design this facility to last as far as we could see into the future. We didn’t actually plan this to be what some in the media have called it, which is a doomsday vault. We’re not people who run around with signs saying “repent the end is near.” In fact we realized that unfortunately the vault was probably going to be used sooner rather than later. Just a couple of weeks ago, for example, there was a fire in the national gene bank in the Philippines and two years before that they experienced a flood, so you don’t have to have some kind of global catastrophe for this thing to be useful. We’re losing biodiversity right now, and it isn’t necessarily because of some global catastrophe.

But of course I have to acknowledge that even though we weren’t planning for doomsday, the facility is such that it would provide a lot of protection for many large catastrophes depending on where they occurred, but that wasn’t the original impetus for the project.

I know that you have some interesting seed shipments coming in association with the anniversary. Are you particularly excited about any of them?

Fowler: Two of them, actually. There is a very important, very historic dwarfing wheat variety coming from the United States. The short stature of modern varieties of wheat is very important, because it allows the wheat to carry more grain on the top without falling over. That’s a huge event in agricultural history that we’ll be able to preserve.

The other one we haven’t publicized too much, because we didn’t want to draw too much attention to what is a very sensitive situation—we’re getting a large shipment in from ICARDA, an international agricultural research center in Syria. It’s not a Syrian government organization, it’s an international center and it’s completely independent from the government. Obviously, there are a lot of troubles in that country right now and that center, ICARDA, has been safety duplicating its material all along, as a good professional team will do, but the fact that this shipment is coming up right now in some ways points to the utility and value of the seed vault. One would not expect a seed bank, even in Syria, to be a target, but unfortunately there is a recent precedent: seed banks in Iraq and Afghanistan were destroyed or severely damaged over the course of the wars there, not because they were blown up or anything but because in the context of chaos and the breakdown of law and order, people have come in and looted them. So we’re pretty happy to have that collection at the vault.

We are fortunate to learn so much about the Arctic through access to news, research, books and video. The first installment of David Attenborough’s acclaimed Frozen Planet airs in the US on the Discovery Channel March 19th.  Be inspired by this changing corner of our planet and join TravelWild on a tour—to see firsthand the polar bears of Spitsbergen or Churchill or to explore the Arctic waters.

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