Tech: The doomsday vault that’s supposed to store every known crop on the planet is in danger


Extreme temperatures in the Arctic this past winter — combined with heavy rain — led to melting permafrost that gushed into the tunnel leading into the vault

If everything goes wrong — if because of disaster, climate change, or nuclear war, life as we know it comes to an end, with parts of the earth rendered inhospitable with widespread environmental devastation, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is a resource that could come to our rescue.

Hidden approximately 400 feet deep inside a mountain on a remote island between mainland Norway and the North Pole, the vault stores valuable seeds from crops all over the world. Buried in a mountainside in the Arctic, it's supposed to be protected and supposed to naturally stay at a safe temperature to store all those seeds.

But extreme temperatures in the Arctic this past winter — combined with heavy rain instead of snow — led to melting permafrost that gushed into the tunnel leading into the vault, according to a report in The Guardian, raising questions about whether or not the doomsday vault will survive a warming planet.

"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, of the Norweigan government, which controls the vault, told The Guardian. "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 didn't travel all the way down into the vault itself, which is still safe, and they were able to chip all of the ice out the entryway.

Here's what the vault looks like inside — and why the administrators are now worried about the potentially devastating effects of warming:

Svalbard is the northernmost place in the world that still has scheduled flights, according to The Crop Trust, the group in charge of the global seed-bank system.

Source: The Crop Trust

It's more than 400 feet above sea level, and there's little moisture in the air. But the Arctic is warming far faster than the rest of the world —faster than anyone expected.

Source: The Crop Trust

Since the vault is buried in permafrost, it's supposed to stay frozen at least 200 years, even if the power were to go out. But officials are worried. "Now we are watching the seed vault 24 hours a day," Aschim told The Guardian.

Source: Reuters

The vault has seeds from more than 60 institutions and almost every country in the world, collected from over 1,500 global gene banks that store samples of seeds from crops native to the region they're in.

Source: The Crop Trust

The Svalbard vault is the central fail-safe for all those seed banks. If it fails, there's no backup.

Source: The Crop Trust

Backups are sent to Svalbard in case a disaster ruins the samples at the home seed bank.

Source: The Crop Trust

That way, the genetic diversity of crops around the world is supposed to be kept safe.

Seed samples are sent to Svalbard in large boxes, which are scanned with X-rays after they get to the island to make sure that they have nothing but seeds inside.

Source: The Crop Trust

The rooftop and part of the facade of the building is a work of art with a light installation by Dyveke Sanne, since all public buildings in Norway are legally required to have art.

Source: The Crop Trust

The vault is supposed to be unlocked only for deposits, which happen three or four times a year. But now workers are trying to waterproof the tunnel leading in and attempting to create ways to channel water and melting permafrost away from the structure.

Source: The Crop Trust

Here's the tunnel that became "like a glacier" when the meltwater froze. There are five doors with coded locks that anyone looking to get into the vault has to pass through.

Source: The Crop Trust

The Crop Trust says that polar bears — which outnumber humans on the island — provide an extra "layer of security."

Source: The Crop Trust

The temperature inside is kept to -18 degrees Celsius, cold enough to keep the sealed seeds viable for — in some cases — thousands of years. But if the vault were to flood because of melting permafrost, no one knows what would happen. It could be a disaster.

Source: The Crop Trust

Generally, new seeds are moved to a trolley and rolled into the vault's main chamber.

Source: The Crop Trust

So far, there are almost a million samples of food crops in the vault, collected since Svalbard opened in 2008. Each sample contains 500 seeds.

Source: The Crop Trust

But there's enough space in the vault's three main rooms to store 4.5 million samples, which would be more than 2 billion seeds.

Source: The Crop Trust

The seeds arrive sealed in foil and are kept inside sealed boxes to prevent any spoilage.

Source: The Crop Trust

In 2015, the ICARDA Seed Bank, which had been in Syria, withdrew samples from the vault — a first — so it could move and restore its seed bank, which had been damaged by war.

Source: Tech Insider

That showed that the vault could serve its function, but hopefully there will be no need for another withdrawal in the near future. "It illustrates why we built it," Cary Fowler told my colleague Lydia Ramsey. "Loss of that collection would be irreplaceable. … I tell people it's a great story — a sad story — of the seed vault functioning as an insurance policy."

Source: Business Insider

Now, researchers are waiting to see if the Arctic will be hit by extreme heat again next winter, melting permafrost again.

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