Consider the seeds of the world safe for now.
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, often referred to as the “doomsday vault” in the Arctic, contains over 800,000 important crop seeds along with tree samples that would tide humanity over should a global natural or man-made disaster takes place. It’s located 400 feet under permafrost and designed to be strong enough to survive even nuclear assaults, yet surrounding ice recently melted and flooded the facility.
While no seeds were compromised, the global public was quick to ask: how well can we protect this supposedly invincible vault?
Building New Protection
In a May 21 statement, vault funder and support organization Crop Trust announced that it will be constructing new drainage ditches along with waterproof walls and other mechanisms to shield the vault’s contents from flooding.
“The Royal Ministry of Agriculture and Food and Statsbygg, Norway, is taking appropriate measures to ensure the protection of the Seed Vault and improve the construction to prevent future incidents,” the statement read.
The Seed Vault, it went further, is and will continue being “the safest backup of crop diversity.”
The vault’s remote location, inside a mountain on a Norwegian archipelago, is intended to be one of its features. The surrounding rock and year-round permafrost were designed to keep the seeds chilled even if there is no longer any power channeled into the facility. Crop Trust even dubbed the facility a “fail-safe” one for storage.
Here Comes Climate Change
Climate change, however, isn’t exactly friendly to this facility despite its fail-safe measures. Unusually high temperatures hitting the Arctic are melting permafrost as well as inhibiting the growth of sea ice.
In a 2014 study, for instance, the region was seen to respond to global warming faster than other places on Earth, heating up at double the rate of the rest of the globe.
In the winter, heat came knocking at the seed vault’s door, with meltwater flooding the entrance and refreezing, creating an ice rink-like environment inside the front door.
"It was not in our plans to think that the permafrost would not be there and that it would experience extreme weather like that," said Hege Njaa Aschim, communications director of Statsbygg, the Norwegian government’s office that oversees construction and property affairs.
"The question is whether this is just happening now, or will it escalate?" the government official told The Guardian. The seeds are safely stored 394 feet deep in the mountain. Currently, they are frozen by permafrost and artificially by being kept at -0.4 degrees Fahrenheit inside foil packages in sealed boxes.
The New Normal: High Temperatures In The Winter
The government is now adjusting to high temperatures striking in the region, where officials are eliminating electrical equipment from the access tunnel to remove any more potential heat source. The drainage ditches being built too will move meltwater away from the entrance of the tunnel instead of toward it.
A new entrance situated in a less sensitive location may also be useful in the future.
Aschim finds concrete solutions necessary, calling it a “big responsibility” to optimally maintain the vault for the world’s benefit.