was designed as an impregnable deep-freeze to protect the world’s
most precious seeds from any global disaster and ensure humanity’s
food supply forever. But the Global Seed Vault, buried in a mountain
deep inside the Arctic circle, has been breached after global warming
produced extraordinary temperatures over the winter, sending
meltwater gushing into the entrance tunnel.
vault is on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen and contains almost a
million packets of seeds, each a variety of an important food crop.
When it was opened in 2008, the deep permafrost through which the
vault was sunk was expected to provide “failsafe” protection
against “the challenge of natural or man-made disasters”.
soaring temperatures in the Arctic at the end of the world’s
hottest ever recorded year led to melting and heavy rain, when light
snow should have been falling. “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, from the
Norwegian government, which owns the vault.
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,” she told the
Guardian. Fortunately, the meltwater did not reach the vault itself,
the ice has been hacked out, and the precious seeds remain safe for
now at the required storage temperature of -18C.
the breach has questioned the ability of the vault to survive as a
lifeline for humanity if catastrophe strikes. “It was supposed to
[operate] without the help of humans, but now we are watching the
seed vault 24 hours a day,” Aschim said. “We must see what we can
do to minimise all the risks and make sure the seed bank can take
care of itself.”
vault’s managers are now waiting to see if the extreme heat of this
winter was a one-off or will be repeated or even exceeded as climate
change heats the planet. The end of 2016 saw average temperatures
over 7C above normal on Spitsbergen, pushing the permafrost above
question is whether this is just happening now, or will it escalate?”
said Aschim. The Svalbard archipelago, of which Spitsbergen is part,
has warmed rapidly in recent decades, according to Ketil Isaksen,
from Norway’s Meteorological Institute.
Arctic and especially Svalbard warms up faster than the rest of the
world. The climate is changing dramatically and we are all amazed at
how quickly it is going,” Isaksen told Norwegian newspaper
vault managers are now taking precautions, including major work to
waterproof the 100m-long tunnel into the mountain and digging
trenches into the mountainside to channel meltwater and rain away.
They have also removed electrical equipment from the tunnel that
produced some heat and installed pumps in the vault itself in case of
a future flood.
said there was no option but to find solutions to ensure the enduring
safety of the vault: “We have to find solutions. It is a big
responsibility and we take it very seriously. We are doing this for
is supposed to last for eternity,” said Åsmund Asdal at the Nordic
Genetic Resource Centre, which operates the seed vault.