New protections for seed vault
Meltwater intrusion into Svalbard’s “doomsday vault” spur improvements to the facility
The Norwegian American
In mid-May, reports of water intrusion into the Svalbard Global Seed Vault shocked the world, with sensational headlines implying doom for the doomsday vault, a repository of over 930,000 seed samples from nearly every country in the world.
Water leaked into the entrance of the underground facility this spring as a record-hot winter allowed the permafrost surrounding it to melt. Combined with heavy rain, it was a recipe for flooding.
Fortunately, the meltwater never reached the vault itself, freezing in the entryway well before any seeds could be harmed.
The Norwegian Ministry of Agriculture and Food and Statsbygg have already begun implementing measures to prevent the season-dependent intrusion of water into the seed vault’s access tunnel. Trenches are being dug in the mountainside to channel water away from the vault. A waterproof wall will be constructed inside the vault for additional protection, and all heat sources will be removed from the inside.
Until then, flooding has been controlled with pumps working around the clock.
That these precautions need to be taken is a troubling sign of climate change. The vault’s location in Svalbard, well within the Arctic Circle, was chosen for its stable low temperatures. The intention was to create a vault that would remain frozen without the need for human maintenance. “It was not in our plans to think that the permafrost would not be there and that it would experience extreme weather like that,” Hege Njaa Aschim, from the Norwegian government, told The Guardian.
The Svalbard vault was opened in 2008 with the aim to provide a “fail-safe seed storage facility, built to stand the test of time and the challenge of natural or man-made disasters,” the Global Crop Diversity Trust, an independent organization, says on its website. According to the Norwegian Ministry of Agriculture and Food, “The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is the world’s backup for crop collections. The seeds are completely safe and no damage has been done to the facility. Globally, the Seed Vault is, and will continue to be, the safest backup of crop diversity.”
This article originally appeared in the June 2, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.