Global Warming Melts Arctic Permafrost, Floods World’s ‘Doomsday’ Seed Vault*
The Vault stores and protects millions of precious seeds from more than 930,000 seed samples of essential food crops from all over the world to ensure humanity’s food supply in case of changing climate, natural disasters, and human conflicts.
The Global Seed Vault, buried deep inside an icy mountain on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, above the Arctic Circle, stores and protects millions of precious seeds from more than 930,000 seed samples of essential food crops (such as beans, wheat and rice). The seeds are sourced from across the world to ensure humanity’s food supply in case of changing climate, natural disasters, and human conflicts.
Located in the remote Arctic Svalbard archipelago, about 1,300 km from the North Pole, the Vault is described as “a fail-safe seed storage facility, built to stand the test of time — and the challenge of natural or man-made disasters.” It can store up to 4.5 million seed samples for hundreds of years. Since each sample contains an average count of 500 seeds, a maximum of 2.25 billion seeds can be stored in the facility.
But the world’s largest secure seed storage has been breached. Global warming resulted in soaring temperatures in the Arctic at the end of the world’s hottest ever recorded year (average temperatures of over 7 degrees Celsius above normal).
On May 19, the ensuing permafrost melting and heavy rain caused melt water to leak approximately 15 metres into the entrance of a 100-meter tunnel inside the Vault. Deimos Imaging, a Spanish company that provides imagery services for agriculture, forestry, and monitoring applications, released pictures of the damage to the ‘Doomsday’ seed Vault, as captured by its Deimos-2 satellite.
— DEIMOS IMAGING (@deimosimaging) May 22, 2017
The Norwegian government confirmed the breach. Hege Njaa Aschim, a Norwegian government spokeswoman, told The Guardian:
“It was not in our plans to think that the permafrost would not be there and that it would experience extreme weather like that. A lot of water went into the start of the tunnel and then it froze to ice, so it was like a glacier when you went in. It was supposed to operate without the help of humans, but now we are watching the seed vault 24 hours a day. We must see what we can do to minimize all the risks and make sure the seed bank can take care of itself. The question is whether this is just happening now, or will it escalate?”
Although the seeds remained safe inside the Vault at the required storage temperature of –18 degrees Celsius, the breach has questioned the ability of the vault to protect the world’s crops from calamities.
Therefore, the Vault’s managers are now constructing a 100m-long waterproof tunnel into the mountain and digging trenches into the mountainside to channel melt water away, Aschim told AFP.
All heat sources from the tunnel will also be removed from inside the Vault for additional protection while pumps will be installed in the Vault itself in case of a future flood, she added:
“It’s not good to have unnecessary heat inside if water is coming in and permafrost is melting. We have to listen to ‘climate experts‘ and we are prepared to do anything to protect the seed vault. The water that leaked in had turned into ice, but we had it removed. Norwegian authorities are taking this very seriously and following it continuously. We have to find solutions. It is a big responsibility and we take it very seriously. We are doing this for the world.”
Even as the Norwegian government detailed the plans to boost the Vault’s defences following the breach, Cary Fowler, former executive director of the Crop Trust — the firm that helped create the vault — took to Twitter to clarify there had been no ‘flooding’ at the facility and that the incident is being overplayed:
@RyanMaue It didn’t flood. Some water enters tunnel just inside beyond building you see yearly and is pumped out. Nothing new. Seeds at opposite end.
— Cary Fowler (@CaryFowler_) May 20, 2017
Seed Vault is fine. Seeds undamaged. No flood as widely but incorrectly reported. Take it from me. https://t.co/tZhiDrLuuS
— Cary Fowler (@CaryFowler_) May 20, 2017