The Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Spitsbergen Island, Norway sits in the permafrost, 1300 km south of the North Pole. It preserves the genetic material for over 4000 various plant species, many of which are essential foods. Recently, it was discovered that the high-security structure has been flooded due to warming temperatures causing severe snow melt.
2016 was the “hottest year ever recorded”, and it resulted in heavy rains and snow melt in the Arctic Circle. The Seed Vault is intended to be one form of ‘doomsday’ insurance for the world food supply, and was constructed with extreme protection measures to withstand time, wars, natural disasters.
The seeds held within the vault are from various depositors. It is free to store seeds in the vault, and operational costs are paid for by the Norwegian government and Crop Trust, funded largely by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Seeds are kept for donors from all over the world.
“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, of the Norwegian government. The Norwegian government owns the vault structure, and they are now strategizing ways to improve the safety of the vault, following this unexpected breach.
Rain and melted snow flooded the tunnel leading to the vault, and froze over, forming an impenetrable glacier. As reported by the Guardian, “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.”
“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 managers are removing electrical equipment from the 100-meter-long tunnel. They are also waterproofing the tunnel and building trenches to irrigate meltwater. The flooding event was very serious and raises many questions about how to prepare for climate change. As expressed by Aschim, “We have to find solutions. It is a big responsibility and we take it very seriously. We are doing this for the world.”
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