Locked away forever
March 1, 2012
There's a strange anniversary going on this week, one that's a sign of the times. It's the fourth anniversary of the opening (or closing, as it were) of the Svalbad Seed Vault, a 500-foot-deep tomb in the arctic that protects the world's plant species by preserving them from catastrophe. Imagine a blight wiping out all of the tomatoes and basil in the world, and only the seeds encased in this underground chamber can ensure that future generations will enjoy fresh bruschetta on the patio in the summer.
Vaults have been with us a long time, with varying uses and successes.
Think of the Egyptians. Their practice of burying the wealthy dead (and some alive) with many possessions inadvertently became a trove of information for scholars in the last century. Their burial vaults have allowed the study of everything from deciphering their language to the lead content in eye makeup worn by Cleopatra.
The seed vault is appropriately sited in the middle of nowhere, Norway.
In the years before the National Archives were created to conserve the documents that the country is founded upon, many cities and towns lost their records to fires; the 1890 Federal Census was also lost to a fire. We might have lost the Declaration of Independence the same way, as this account says it was tacked up on the wall of the U.S. Patent Office for decades before it was deemed important enough to preserve in the 1950s.
Now it is kept in an oxygen-free chamber under bullet-proof glass at the National Archives. This video explains how it is preserved, and raises a question about a smudged handprint visible in one corner (but who knows, considering how long it knocked around Washington before someone thought to take proper care of it).
We didn't get around to creating a vault for the Declaration until the 1950s.
While we're on the topic of things that should be protected, how about the national gold reserves? Some say Fort Knox is still the site, others say that's just an old punchline (and scene of one of the worst James Bond vs. evil mastermind showdowns). This interesting article speculates about where other countries' gold reserves may be located as well, and how big they are (you'd need more than a forklift).
What else is worthy of such protection? How about your Thursday afternoon newspaper? OK, if not that how about a copy of your medical records? Those are the sorts of things found at Iron Mountain, a document storage vault used by many local companies.
Perhaps the last time you'll think of a vault is when making your final preparations. There are consumer protection laws to ensure that you get the encasement you paid for. But then again, who's to know unless somebody cures death?