The Officials in charge of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault have reported that water from melting permafrost and heavy rain, brought about by record-high temperatures in the Arctic over the past winter, has leaked into the entrance tunnel leading to the underground stronghold. The water subsequently froze on the floor of the tunnel, prompting the vault’s caretakers to chip the ice away from the tunnel floor.
Located on Norway’s Spitsbergen Island, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is a seedbank designed to act as a long-term insurance policy against unforeseeable disasters that may arise that could wipe out entire species of food crop. The vault itself is buried 120 meters (390 feet) inside a sandstone mountain, where the samples, provided by numerous organizations from around the world, are kept at a steady -18ºC (-0.4ºF) inside triple-ply foil packets, intended to preserve the seeds for thousands of years. The vault has already proven useful, when samples provided by Syria were temporarily withdrawn to re-stock the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, when the organization was forced to relocate from Aleppo to Beirut, due to the Syrian civil war.
Although the intruding water likely wouldn’t pose a threat to the vault itself, it does raise two concerns: first, the surrounding permafrost was expected to act as a backup in case the vault’s refrigeration system were to fail, with the frozen soil keeping the facility just below freezing. However, if the permafrost melts, that may mean that the facility’s caretakers may not be able to rely on that natural fallback.
"It was not in our plans to think that the permafrost would not be there and that it would experience extreme weather like that," explains Hege Njaa Aschim, a Norwegian government official in charge of 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."
The other issue is, as it oft is with the best laid schemes of mice and men, that this incident is a reminder that we can’t anticipate absolutely every contingency that might arise to threaten such a long-term project, regardless of how much planning is put into the issue. The vault is usually only accessed three to four times each year, typically for new deposits to be made, but the facility is now being staffed ’round the clock, in case something else goes wrong.
"It was supposed to [operate] without the help of humans, but now we are watching the seed vault 24 hours a day," according to Aschim. "We must see what we can do to minimize all the risks and make sure the seed bank can take care of itself."