Recent news that the entrance of the Global Seed Vault on Svalbard had flooded raised concern for the vast crop seed collection it contains.
The vault has been nicknamed the “Doomsday Seed Vault” and is located at the end of a 100-metre tunnel inside a mountain. It stores the world’s largest collection of seeds using the low temperature of Svalbard’s permafrost as a natural means of conservation.
Svalbard is an Arctic archipelago in the Barents sea north of mainland Norway. The vault was officially opened in 2008 and was designed as a “fail-safe seed storage facility, built to stand the test of time – and the challenges of natural or man-made disasters”. However, the idea of the facility being “fail-safe” has just been challenged by climate change.
The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the global average and recent record-breaking warm temperatures have left their mark on Svalbard. Thawing permafrost and melting ice around the seed vault, in addition to heavy rains, have produced unusually high amounts of water which infiltrated the vault’s access tunnel. Luckily, the flood did not reach the seed storage area leaving its contents unharmed. Measures have already been taken to repair the entrance, prevent future meltwater intrusions and eliminate sources of heat inside the vault.
The occurrence of such a flooding event in a seemingly disaster proof construction which was designed less than 10 years ago to “last for eternity” highlights that the implications of permafrost thawing are only just beginning to sink in. As Hege Njaa Aschim, from the Norwegian government, noted, “It was not in our plans to think that the permafrost would not be there and that it would experience extreme weather like that”. Events such as these send a strong signal on the need to anticipate and adapt to these changes.
Relying on naturally cold temperatures to preserve resources is not Svalbard-specific strategy. In the Russian region of Yakutia for instance, the Siberian permafrost has been used for centuries as a natural freezer to store food all year-round. In Iceland, data centers rely on the relatively cold and stable air temperatures which, combined with competitive energy costs, create ideal and cost effective air-conditioning to cool servers. Inspired by Svalbard’s vault concept, French scientists recently announced a project to extract ice cores from the Alps and Andes glaciers and store them in a “world ice-core bank” to be set in Concordia Station in Antarctica. Located 3200 metres above sea level, with an annual average temperature of -50°C, this vault should keep these samples of ice – and the climate data they contain – safe for a while.
How safe is it to rely on this kind of storage in times of rapid climate change? Svalbard’s story teaches us that there is a need for precautionary approaches, especially when it comes to the conservation of resources as essential for the future of humanity as those stored in Svalbard’s vault. Climate change, particularly in polar and mountain regions, is happening very fast, and little is known about the future extent of the changes, or the conditions that will prevail there at the end of the century. Precaution and adaptation to future changes and risks are key and to mitigate the impacts of the reducing cryosphere worldwide. In Svalbard, such approaches will ensure the effectiveness of “the ultimate insurance policy of the world’s food supply”.