Image: Kevin Cooley
The tiny locale of Longyearbyen on the Svalbard archipelago of Norway is one of the world’s most northerly towns. In this land above the Arctic Circle, the sun shines 24-seven in summer, then leaves inhabitants in perpetual darkness in winter. University students learn to shoot polar bears in self-defense while kindergarten kids see physiotherapists to check on mobility issues caused by heavy snowsuits. And residents worry about the effects of global warming on their Icefjord, which doesn’t actually ice up in winter anymore.
But if life in Longyearbyen is unusual, it’s nothing compared to the prospect of death: the town rule is, if you die here, you will not be buried.
The town doesn’t mean to be selective about who gets entry into its small graveyard, it’s just that the permafrost in these cold climes doesn’t encourage the natural decomposition of dead bodies. No one has been admitted into the graveyard for over 70 years; to receive a proper burial, citizens must make advanced arrangements to be flown to another part of Norway.
Image: Mari Tefre/Svalbard Global Seed Vault, Global Crop Diversity Trust, via WikiMedia Commons
However, the exclusivity of its graveyard is not the only thing that’s intriguing about Longyearbyen; even though no one is allowed to die, the town is still prepared for Armageddon. Because it’s the permafrost that also renders Longyearbyen an ideal location for one of several Global Seed Vaults – highly secure repositories of plant seeds that will help humankind survive worldwide destruction.
Image: Edward Rogers, Joseph R. Knowland collection, Oakland Public Library via WikiMedia Commons
And it’s a good thing the seed bank is located here, too, because scientists risked the resurrection of the the world’s deadliest flu strain when they embarked on a 1998 exhumation of seven buried Longyearbyen miners who succumbed to the lethal virus. Scientists thought that if they could find an intact virus locked in the permafrost, they would better understand the Spanish Flu of 1918, which killed more than 50 million people. Unfortunately for the scientists, but fortunate for us, the expedition was unsuccessful.
We’ll even throw in a free album.