In the news: problems at the Global Seed Vault

Within the Arctic lies the Global Seed Vault, an impenetrable deep freeze housing the seeds of the planet’s most valuable foods. Since melting water from the permafrost began to flood the access tunnel, it is to benefit from an upgrade costing millions of dollars.

Although the seeds remained undamaged, the incident has challenged the belief in the vault being a failsafe installation, guarding the planet’s food supply indefinitely. The vault, which is owned by the Norwegian government is to spend $4.4 million in improvements.

Buried 130m under a mountain near Svalbard, the vault contains approximately a million variety of seeds, all belonging to an invaluable food crop. The seed vault has been open since 2008 and was intended as a safeguard to protect against natural and human disasters.

But planners failed to anticipate unseasonably warm weather after what became the warmest year on record. This has led to the permafrost not establishing itself in the way it was planned. A group is now to investigate solutions to tackle the rise in water resulting from the hotter climate experienced on Svalbard.

A major problem has proven to be the design of the tunnel accessing the vault. At present it slopes downwards towards the main door. Any accumulation of water in the tunnel is therefore carried downwards, towards the seed collection. A solution would be to redesign the tunnel to slope upwards towards the entrance.

A spokesperson for the Norwegian government explained that the tunnel was designed in such a way as to be a practical method of entry to the vault, with the understanding that the permafrost would keep it safe. However, with the permafrost now not acting in the way it was expected to, the spokesperson acknowledged that something else should be done with the access tunnel.

To begin with, $1.6 million is to be invested to investigate methods to upgrade the tunnel, the results of which should be available by spring 2018. A further $4.4 is being invested now for current improvements, this is in addition to the original $9 million in construction costs for the vault.

Heat which was being released from a transformer station, has been stopped by moving the station away from the tunnel. The situation is also being alleviated by the introduction of drainage ditches in the mountain side above the vault. For additional protection, within the tunnel itself, waterproof walls are to be built.

These measures provide the basis of a precautionary approach, enabling long term additional security for the vault.

Intended to work independently of human involvement, the seed vault currently requires 24 hour monitoring, with pumps ready to extract any water accumulations. An ideal temperature of -18C is needed to keep the seeds safe.

Originally a coal mine, the Global Seed Vault was intended as a contingency to preserve precious seeds in the event of a worldwide disaster. The idea being that survivors from a global catastrophe could come to the vault and re-populate the planet with crops.