In the event of a global catastrophe, the world’s food supply could be in jeopardy. For this reason, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is an invaluable storage space for stockpiling seeds and keeping them safe from disaster. However, climate change might already be compromising the viability of this solution in the long run.
Located deep in the Arctic Circle on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, the seed vault opened in 2008 and is a temperature-stable storage space capable of holding 4.5 million varieties of food crops, or up to 2.5 billion seeds. Because it’s surrounded by permafrost, the vault was designed to provide failsafe protection against calamity, both natural and otherwise.
However, rising average temperatures in the region and an unseasonably warm winter recently led to heavy rains and widespread melting of the surrounding permafrost, which caused the first 15 meters of the 100-meter tunnel into the vault to flood. While the water soon refroze into a barricade of ice, and the seeds themselves weren’t damaged, the flooding is a grim forewarning of the damage that natural disasters may cause in the age of climate change. After all, when the vault was initially designed, it seemed inconceivable that the permafrost around it would ever be at risk.
This breach of melt-water into the vault challenges the assumption that it can protect the seeds it contains through any catastrophe. Though the vault was designed to provide constant zero-degree-Fahrenheit storage conditions without human intervention, workers are now monitoring the vault at all times for signs of further melting.
For now, the vault’s managers can only wait to see if the extreme heat that spurred the melting will come again, and it seems highly likely that it will. In fact, 2016 was the hottest year on record globally, and winter temperatures throughout Spitsbergen were above average. Because the polar ice caps are warming up faster than the rest of the planet, they’re usually the first place where the impacts of climate change can be noticed.
To prevent future flooding, vault managers are directing an estimated $4.4 million to rework the vault’s systems and ensure the safety of the seeds inside. This involves waterproofing a 328-foot-long tunnel through the mountain and creating alternate channels and trenches to divert water away from the precious seeds.
No one expected that flooding would be an issue when the seed vault was first designed, and it’s equally challenging to predict the kinds of damage that future disasters might inflict. Nonetheless, the vault operators will continue to push forward with improvements, as the future of humanity’s food may depend on it.