The Myth of Glacial Safety: From Fortitude to Svalbard

In the new book, “Nordic Narratives of Nature and the Environment,” author Lauren LaFauci analyzes the perceived safety and stability of remote, glacierized locations of the northern Arctic. Her chapter, “The Safest Place on Earth: Cultural Imaginaries of Safety in Scandinavia,” begins its inquiry into this subject by examining the fictional Arctic town of “Fortitude,” popularized by the Sky TV/Amazon television series of the same name.

The fictional town of “Fortitude” from the Sky TV/Amazon original series (Source: Sky Atlantic).

Fortitude is revered by its community for its safety, due to both its seclusion and the way it is ensconced in a serene, quiet glacier. Because of Fortitude’s recognized safety, it becomes a metonym, or symbol, for the perceived safety of a northern Arctic glacial environment.

Longyearbyen, Norway (Source: Christopher Michael).

Fortitude’s invulnerability is absolute, extending its security all the way to the preservation of life itself. It’s a place where people aren’t allowed to die, and resembles the real-life northernmost Arctic town of Longyearbyen, Norway. The reasoning for this is because deceased bodies remain preserved in extreme cold, their inability to decay rendering any infectious diseases still viable. With the cemetery of Fortitude filled with decay-resistant, plague-infested bodies from the early 1900s, it is evident that Fortitude isn’t as safe as it’s purported to be.

Even the town name, Fortitude, synonymous with terms such as endurance, resilience and grit, signals the hardships endured in order to live there. This imagined safety demonstrates how human order is often privileged over the dangers of the Arctic wild. In her chapter, LaFauci tells how humans use the snow as a blank slate in order to re-write themselves and design new meanings. “The town’s isolation in Norway’s Svalbard archipelago marks the place as a character in its own right, albeit one inscribed with these conflicting human meanings,” she writes.

Svalbard Island, Norway (Source: Global Crop Diversity Trust).

LaFauci then turns her reader’s attention from fiction to reality as she explores the Global Seed Vault in the Svalbard archipelago, which houses copies of seeds from over 1,700 different crop gene banks from around the world, as well as the Future Library Project in Oslo, a collaborative anthology of books to be published in the year 2114. Both projects take place in similar climates to Fortitude; locations believed to be safe from a Doomsday event due to their glacierized geographies, thereby providing for the conservation of biological and cultural knowledge.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault with the vault entrance in the background (Source: Global Crop Diversity Trust)

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is located on a remote island halfway between Norway and the North Pole. Crop Trust, the managing organization for the Global Seed Vault, asserts that its location is ideal for long-term seed storage due to its stable geography with low humidity, its location above sea-level where it is safe from flooding and sea-level rise, and the fact that the permafrost ensures natural freezing, which will continuously preserve its contents in case of power loss.

Climate change, however, recently had other plans for the Global Seed Vault’s imagined safety, LaFauci notes. In 2016, increased Arctic temperatures— the average for 2016 was over 7 degrees Celsius— along with frequent heavy rain led to a melting of the permafrost around the vault. This caused flooding within the vault’s entry chamber, putting humanity’s crop insurance at risk.

This warming in the Svalbard archipelago, also known as polar or Arctic amplification, is two to four times greater than warming observed in other areas of the planet. The whiteness of the sea ice in the Arctic typically reflects the sun’s incoming radiation back out into space; however, the rapid rate of melting sea ice changes its ability to reflect radiation. Instead, the darker ocean left after the sea ice melts absorbs heat from the sun. The more heat absorbed, the more sea ice melts, which results in a feedback loop of continual increased warming, ice melt, thawing permafrost and glacial runoff.

Arctic amplification model shows increased warming at the poles (Source: NASA).

After investigating “safety” of the Global Seed Vault and the science around our melting Arctic, LaFauci returns to the fictional story of Fortitude and asks, “How do we tell stories that resist this utopic imaginary rather than reinforce a false sense of security?”

She further encourages narrative to propel us to act when she writes, “As a problem of story-telling, of narrative—what stories can we tell that will move others to action?—the urgency of communicating climate change thus becomes a problem, not only for climate scientists, but for the environmental humanities.”

The University of California, Los Angeles describes the environmental humanities as a “concept for organizing humanistic research, for opening up new forms of interdisciplinarity both within the humanities and in collaboration with the social and natural sciences, and for shaping public debate and policies on environmental issues.” LaFauci believes the cultural stories we tell ourselves can either aid us in embracing or ignoring the hard truths about our changing climate and planetary crisis.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadstar driven by “Starman” was launched into space on February 6, 2018. (Source: Kevin Baird).

She calls our tendency to ignore harsh realities in storytelling “Anthropocentic folly.” Told differently, these stories can therefore reframe the warming Arctic regions as unstable and unsafe— consistent with the reality of Arctic amplification.

So what does humanity do to store our biological crop library safely in case of an apocalypse? How do we ‘back up’ life on earth ahead of a doomsday event that renders all of our geographies unsafe?

Perhaps the obvious place to backup humanity is in outer space or even on the moon. It’s time to begin having conversations about how we’ll load our biological humanity into the proverbial trunk of our car, spurned by the fictional stories we tell ourselves.