Doomsday Seed Vault Floods As Record Highs Melts Permafrost

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, often dubbed the “Doomsday Seed Vault,” was founded in February of 2008. The purpose of the Seed Vault is to hold duplicates of seed samples that are stored in other seed banks around the world. The seeds stored in the vault are each a different variety of an important food crop. That way if local seed banks should be breached and local samples are ruined, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault can replenish their stocks.

When it was constructed, the Global Seed Vault was embedded deep into the arctic permafrost and placed 130 meters into the rock and 130 meters above sea level. The permafrost combined with the high latitude was designed to help keep the facility at a constant three to four degrees Celsius below zero, making the cooling of the facility easier.

Unfortunately, a record heatwave in the Arctic that was part of the world’s hottest year on record melted the permafrost that surrounded the vault, sending a flood of meltwater into the 100-meter long entrance tunnel. When the vault was designed, the thick layer of permafrost and rock were meant to ensure that the seed samples would be protected from both man-made and natural disasters. Additionally, at a time when there is usually snowfall, the warmer temperatures created heavy rains, making the problem that much worse.

Permafrost melt and heavy rains caused a concerning flood at the Global Seed Vault
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is now home to over 900,000 seed samples from around the world. [Image by David Keyton/AP Images]

According to a representative from the Norwegian government, Hege Njaa Aschim, it was not in their plans to think that weather and global warming would contribute to the loss of the permafrost. She spoke about the damage to the vault, stressing that it isn’t serious. Yet.

“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.”

The water from the rains and melted permafrost did not reach the actual vaults themselves; the ice was removed and the storage remains at the required -18C. However, the vault’s breach has called into question how well the vault will work if catastrophe does strike. The vault was designed to operate without the need for constant human supervision, but because of this disaster, there is now a permanent staff monitoring the vault 24/7.

Nobody knows for sure if the record highs will continue their trend. Climate scientists have been warning for years about the dangers of global warming. In 2016, average temperatures were seven degrees Celsius over the norm, a trend that has been continuing since the 1980s. Scientists in Norway are wondering if this year’s warmth is just a single incident or if it will continue, and if so, how they will deal with the impact that the warmth will have on the vaults. Ketil Isaksen, who works at Norway’s Meteorological Institute told the Norwegian newspaper Dabgladet that he was amazed at how quickly the climate has been changing on the Svalbard archipelago.

Global warming has had an unforseen impact on the Global seed vault at Svalbard
The Global Seed Vault at Svalbard faces a crisis brought on by record high temperatures. [Image by John McConnico/AP Images]

For now, the vault managers have undertaken the hard work of making sure that a breach of this sort doesn’t happen again. This includes the construction of drainage trenches in the mountainside to funnel rain and meltwater away from the vault entrance. They have also undertaken the task of waterproofing the entryway and installed pumps in the vaults in case floodwaters reach past the entryway.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault currently holds over 930,000 samples from nearly every country in the world, stretching out to almost 5,500 distinct species. A complete list of all the seeds and species stored in the vault can be found at the Global Seed Vault’s information sharing site here.

No matter what happens with the looming threat of global warming, Aschim reiterated the importance of the seed vault and the service it provides in protecting the world’s unique crop genetic materials.

“We have to find solutions. It is a big responsibility and we take it very seriously. We are doing this for the world.”

[Featured Image by David Keyton/AP Images]