Arctic seed vault to be upgraded
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is a secure facility located on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen which exists to provide a safety net against the accidental loss of crop diversity around the world. The popular impression of the facility is that it is a last resort for humanity if there is an apocalypse and people need to grow food again, but the reality is that the seed vault is mostly utilised to renew crops lost due to war, mismanagement, environmental disaster or any other similar situation.
Opened in 2008, the seed vault is home to more than 900,000 seed samples with space for more than 3.5 million more. Samples come from all over the world, making the vault one of the world’s most significant biodiversity hubs along with its sister vault in Syria.
It is impossible to overstate the value of retaining crop diversity, and the seed samples contained within the vaults have the potential to save hundreds of millions of lives. Both are meant to be immune to the elements – in the case of the Svalbard vault, this is achieved by the facility being dug into the permafrost which acts as both insulation and a physically protective layer. Being dug 130m into a mountain was meant to ensure the vault stood the test of time.
However, things are changing.
The original plan for the vault did not take into account the rapid warming of the earth which is causing more and more ice to melt every year. This past winter, meltwater flowed into the vault and very nearly reached the seed samples. Luckily the water froze before it reached the storage chambers, but if measures are not taken and water reaches the samples then it would be a disaster.
In response, the vault operators are preparing to spend up to US$130m to improve its defences and allow it to continue to stay safe without human interference.
Already work has begun to move a heat generating transformer out of the tunnels and into a separate area where it cannot melt anything. In addition, serious modifications are planned for the entrance tunnel to help stop the flow of any water before it can become a problem. If the tunnel entrance is not changed to slope upwards instead of downwards then an ice berg will form over the years and block access, thereby rendering the vault pointless.
Modifying the tunnel entrance will certainly be expensive, but given that the alternative is the loss of a huge portion of our crop diversity it is hard to argue that it isn’t money well spent.
Photograph: Heiko Junge/EPA