Arctic 'doomsday' seed vault suffers breach from permafrost melt

The underground vault - that has also been called Noah's Ark for seeds - houses and protects the world's crops for a worst-case scenario, that is doomsday.

Norway is to boost the flood defences of its Global Seed Vault on the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard after water entered the entrance tunnel a year ago.

The Global Seed Vault, which launched back in 2008, was placed in the permafrost on Spitsbergen, a small Norwegian island, due to its consistently cold temperatures and relative isolation.

The structure was built underneath the permafrost so it could be "a fail-safe seed storage facility, built to stand the test of time - and the challenge of natural or man-made disasters", as the seed bank's website says.

"It was not in our plans to think that the permafrost would not be there and that it would experience extreme weather like that", Statsbygg Communications Director Hege Njaa Aschim said. More crucially, the breach has led to questions about the long-time survival of the vault, which is considered to be humanity's food insurance against apocalypse.

Vox reported the Norwegian designers of the seed vault that was supposed to operate without human assistance for "eternity" had met its match from "floods linked to climate change".

At the end of past year in Spitsbergen, average temperatures warmed by 7°C (11°F) above normal.

The vault was purposefully constructed far away from major population centers, and was built 400 feet into an icy mountainside in Spitsbergen, Norway.

In preparation for doomsday, conservationist Cary Fowler, in association with the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), started the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in the remote Arctic Svalbard archipelago. Each vault is surrounded by frozen arctic permafrost, protecting seeds from power failure. "This whole planet is warming, and that includes Svalbard".

The seed vault is built into an abandoned coal mine hundreds of feet above sea level, and is created to store seeds at a minimum of -18 degrees Celsius. But with climate change seemingly only accelerating, it isn't yet known whether more might need to be done.

Waterproof walls inside the tunnel itself will provide extra protection for the vaults themselves. They have also installed pumps in the seed room should it ever be breached.

"The water that leaked in had turned into ice. we had it removed", she said.

While the designers of the vault seem to have taken the possibilities of nuclear wars and global pandemics into account, they may have given too little thought to one other serious threat: global warming.

"We did this calculation; if all the ice in the world melted - Greenland, Arctic, Antarctic, everything - and then we had the world's largest recorded tsunami right in front of the seed vault".

  • Carolyn Briggs