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Arctic stronghold of world’s seeds flooded after permafrost melts

No seeds were lost but the ability of the rock vault to provide failsafe protection against all disasters is now threatened by climate change

The Svalbard ‘doomsday’ seed vault was built to protect millions of food crops from climate change, wars and natural disasters. Photograph: John Mcconnico/AP

The Svalbard ‘doomsday’ seed vault was built to protect millions of food crops from climate change, wars and natural disasters. Photograph: John Mcconnico/AP

Last modified on Thu 15 Oct 2020 14.25 BST

It was designed as an impregnable deep-freeze to protect the world’s most precious seeds from any global disaster and ensure humanity’s food supply forever. But the Global Seed Vault, buried in a mountain deep inside the Arctic circle, has been breached after global warming produced extraordinary temperatures over the winter, sending meltwater gushing into the entrance tunnel.

The vault is on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen and contains almost a million packets of seeds, each a variety of an important food crop. When it was opened in 2008, the deep permafrost through which the vault was sunk was expected to provide “failsafe” protection against “the challenge of natural or man-made disasters”.

But soaring temperatures in the Arctic at the end of the world’s hottest ever recorded year led to melting and heavy rain, when light snow should have been falling. “It was not in our plans to think that the permafrost would not be there and that it would experience extreme weather like that,” said Hege Njaa Aschim, from the Norwegian government, which owns the vault.

“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,” she told the Guardian. Fortunately, the meltwater did not reach the vault itself, the ice has been hacked out, and the precious seeds remain safe for now at the required storage temperature of -18C.

But the breach has questioned the ability of the vault to survive as a lifeline for humanity if catastrophe strikes. “It was supposed to [operate] without the help of humans, but now we are watching the seed vault 24 hours a day,” Aschim said. “We must see what we can do to minimise all the risks and make sure the seed bank can take care of itself.”

Plastic boxes containing plant seeds inside the international Svalbard Global Seed Vault on Spitsbergen, Norway. Photograph: Jens Buttner/dpa/Alamy

The vault’s managers are now waiting to see if the extreme heat of this winter was a one-off or will be repeated or even exceeded as climate change heats the planet. The end of 2016 saw average temperatures over 7C above normal on Spitsbergen, pushing the permafrost above melting point.

“The question is whether this is just happening now, or will it escalate?” said Aschim. The Svalbard archipelago, of which Spitsbergen is part, has warmed rapidly in recent decades, according to Ketil Isaksen, from Norway’s Meteorological Institute.

“The Arctic and especially Svalbard warms up faster than the rest of the world. The climate is changing dramatically and we are all amazed at how quickly it is going,” Isaksen told the Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet.

No seeds were lost but the ability of the rock vault to provide failsafe protection against all disasters is now threatened by climate change

Svalbard Global Seed Vault

Welcome to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault

Way up north, in the permafrost, 1300 kilometers beyond the Arctic Circle, is the world’s largest secure seed storage, opened by the Norwegian Government in February 2008. From all across the globe, crates of seeds are sent here for safe and secure long-term storage in cold and dry rock vaults.

A global backstop

The vault hold the seeds of many tens of thousands of varieties of essential food crops such as beans, wheat and rice. In total, the vault now holds seeds of more than 4000 plant species. These seed samples are duplicates of seed sample stores in national, regional and international gene banks.

Seeds remain depositors’ property

The Seed Bank was established and is fully funded by the Norwegian government, with the responsibility for operations assigned to The Ministry of Agriculture and Food. The Ministry coordinates daily operation with the Nordic Gene Resource Centre and the Global Crop Diversity Trust, and receives guidance from a dedicated international council established to advise the Seed Bank.

Svalbard Global Seed Vault – a new video

Way up north, in the permafrost, 1300 kilometers beyond the Arctic Circle, is the world’s largest secure seed storage. A new video produced by the Norwegian Ministry of Agriculture and Food tells the story about the Vault.

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A Task for Eternity

02/11/2020: Deep inside a mountain on an island in the Svalbard archipelago, halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole, more than one million seeds of crops from around the world are stored in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. The storage facility thus contains the world’s largest backup collection of seed samples. By establishing the Seed Vault, Norway has taken on a global task that will never be completed. The best way to manage this responsibility is to do so in an eternal perspective.

Successful seed deposit despite the pandemic

30/10/2020: In the midst of the ongoing global pandemic, gene banks are sending backup copies of their seeds to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. This week, around 15,000 new bags of seeds from eight gene banks were safely placed on the shelves in the seed vault.

Way up north, in the permafrost, 1300 kilometers beyond the Arctic Circle, is the world’s largest secure seed storage, opened by the Norwegian Government in February 2008. From all across the globe, crates of seeds are sent here for safe and secure lon…