Climate Change Threatens Global “Doomsday Vault”
The “Doomsday Vault” may be threatened by rising global temperatures, as the warm winter weather of 2016 caused melting and rainfall even in the Arctic.
Tucked away in an abandoned coal mine on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, the Global Seed Vault was created in 2008 to provide safe storage for millions of seed samples of the most vital food sources in the world – ensuring that even in the case of war or natural disaster wiping out food crops, humans would be able to survive.
More than 900,000 seed varieties have been collected since the vault opened in 2008, including 11,000 seeds deposited in 2014 by the Australian Grains Genebank and the Australian Pastures Genebank. More popular seeds include wheat, barley, potatoes, and more than 100,000 types of rice.
These backup seed varieties are primarily duplicates of seeds deposited in smaller national or regional banks – representing almost every country around the globe. Preserving these seeds, scientists say, is an important part of ensuring crop diversity and food security through times of instability – both climatic and political.
According to the seed bank’s website, the structure was meant to be “a fail-safe seed facility, built to stand the test of time – and the challenge of natural or man-made disasters.” However, these seeds require storage at temperatures below -18 degrees Celsius, and Spitsbergen’s temperatures this February reached up to 6.8C.
According to Hege Njaa Aschim from the Norwegian Public Construction and Property agency, none of the seeds sustained any damage – but the extreme weather did showcase some of the vulnerabilities facing the vault.
“This autumn, we had extreme weather at Svalbard – high temperatures and a lot of rain, which is unusual,” she said. “It was not in our plans to think that the permafrost would not be there and that it would experience extreme weather like that.”
Warmer temperatures in the area hadn’t been a consideration when the vault was built, Aschim admitted. The melting permafrost did result in water seeping into the vault’s tunnel before freezing and turning to ice, creating a “glacier” at the vault’s entrance – and now requires monitoring to ensure no further damage is caused.
“It was supposed to (operate) without the help of humans, but now we are watching the seed vault 24 hours a day,” said Aschim. “We must see what we can do to minimise all the risks and make sure the seed bank can take care of itself.”
The government is looking at other solutions to mitigate the problem and prevent water from leaking into the vault, including the removal of heat sources and the construction of drainage ditches to direct water away from the access tunnel. A waterproof wall is also planned for inside the tunnel, offering additional protection if more water does find its way inside, and pumps are being installed inside the vault.
According to Åsmund Asdal with the Nordic Genetic Resource Centre, which operates the vault, they are doing everything they can to protect the bank from the growing threat of climate change.
“We have to find solutions,” said Asdal. “This is supposed to last for eternity.”