Embedded within a mountain not far from the Arctic Circle, accessible only by a water-proof concrete tunnel, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway’s Svalbard archipelago holds nearly 1 million seeds.
Magnus Bredeli-Pveiten, project manager for the Svalbard Global Seed Vault Monday Feb. 25, 2008 is seen at the vault in Longyearbyen, Norway.
Built to insure the world’s crop collection, the vault was once thought to be indestructible. But in recent years, temperatures throughout Svalbard have been rising three times faster than the global average and rainfall has intensified, according to a new report by the Norwegian Environmental Agency.
By the end of the century, temperatures across the islands could rise as much as 10 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels, which is five times higher than the absolute limit recommended by the Paris climate agreement.
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The rising temperatures have caused the permafrost surrounding the vault to melt. In 2016, heavy rain and melting permafrost flooded the vault’s entrance, forcing the organizations overseeing the seed bank to overhaul its design.
“The permafrost is not to be trusted anymore,” said Hege Njaa Aschim, communications manager for Statsbygg, which oversees the vault’s infrastructure. “It’s not like rock, like it used to be — it’s like soil.
“We had to change the tunnel into a concrete waterproof tunnel,” she told Global Citizen. “We had to change all the soil, and permafrost, 17,000 cubic meters of materials, and instead we have frozen soil and layer by layer of cooling pipes.”
After a reconstruction cost of $11.7 million, double the project’s initial price, the seed bank was eventually stabilized. The rapidly changing conditions in Svalbard, however, highlight how the the seeds inside the vault could become needed sooner than expected.
It’s often referred to as the “doomsday vault,” but Neil Palmer, head of communications at Crop Trust, which oversees the vault, told Global Citizen that “doomsday,” with its apocalyptic connotations, is misleading.
The vault is more mundane and practical — it’s kind of like backing up your hard drive, he said.
“We keep seeing stories about the doomsday vault, and this has been with the seed vault since it was created 10 years ago,” Palmer said. “The idea adds a very nice touch to the original story, but ‘doomsday vault’ suggests that it would contain seeds in case of catastrophe or nuclear disaster, and people could paddle up there and restart agriculture.
“It’s more of a safety policy for the seed vaults of the world in case they suffer a mini doomsday,” he added. “It’s not there in case of a global meltdown; it’s there to provide a specific protection to different gene banks around the world.”
The Global Seed Vault holds duplicates of seeds found in the more than 1,700 other seed banks around the world. It’s there in case these particular vaults fail or face challenges.
For example, some seed banks face funding challenges that can cause maintenance problems, such as inconsistent cooling in seed chambers. Seed banks are recommended to stay at -18 degrees Celsius to protect seed integrity, and temperature disruptions can damage the specimens.
Other seed banks are in conflict areas and can be damaged by bombs, or the people overseeing them vaults can flee. Palmer pointed to the example of a seed bank in Aleppo, the Syrian city that has been bombed to rubble in the country’s eight-year civil war, as one that has faced particular challenges in recent years.
Natural disasters like earthquakes also pose a risk to seed banks, and rising sea levels could flood others.
The loss of a particular seed variety, Crop Trust notes, is as irreversible as a dinosaur extinction.
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is naturally cold and is protected from natural disasters, Palmer said. It also has steady funding, and is situated in a stable country.
“Norway is seen as a trusted country that’s very transparent,” Palmer said. “There’s lots of issues dealing with cultural property, national property, and countries need a partner they can really trust.”
The stability of the Svalbard vault also allows for its second key function — the development of new seeds.
“There’s kind of a nice value in conserving the seeds,” Palmer said. “They represent thousands of years of agricultural heritage. But that’s not going to do anything for the future.
“The reason these gene banks are important is they hold different crop samples and they’re used by breeders to develop crops that can withstand climate change, more drought, pests, diseases,” he said. “They supply scientists with innovation to outsmart some of the challenges we’re all facing in global food production.”
In addition to storing duplicates of seeds, the team at Crop Trust also collects wild seeds that are, in real-time, adapting to changing environments.
“These seeds are adapting to all the conditions that the climate is throwing at [them],” Palmer said. “There’s an effort to bring some of those seeds into the vault that are at risk of being lost from climate change, development, urbanization, and deforestation.
“If the vaults are made available for scientists, then they can go and make hybrids to find the characteristics that unlock some of those secrets to develop heartier varieties,” he said.