23 Mayo 2017 13:37
The place has apocalyptic resonance. Although its official name is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, it is often called the 'Doomsday Vault'.
Deep in the heart of an icy mountain on a remote island in the Svalbard archipelago, halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole, there are three watertight chambers designed to preserve the world's most precious seeds from any natural or man-made disaster. The idea is that these seeds – around one million samples donated by 61 germplasm banks all over the world – will secure our future food supply in the event of a major global catastrophe.
The seeds are stored in hermetically sealed aluminium boxes which are inside plastic crates on metal shelves. Photo by Jens Buttner/dpa/Alamy
The Global Seed Vault, located on the island of Spitsbergen, was built to withstand earthquakes, nuclear war, volcanic activity, tsunamis and other natural catastrophes. However, it now has an unexpected, less dramatic but equally dangerous new enemy: the melting of the permafrost.
Extraordinary winter temperatures in the Arctic are causing the layer of permanently frozen land around the vault to melt, sending water flooding into the entrance tunnel.
'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,' Hege Njaa Aschim, from the Nordic Genetic Resource Centre, told The Guardian.
Fortunately, the meltwater did not reach the vault itself, and the seeds remain safe at the required storage temperature of -18C. However, the flood does call into question the theoretical capacity of the rock and concrete vault to withstand any type of disaster.
The incident is especially significant for two reasons. Firstly, because the location of the Global Seed Vault was specifically chosen for the permafrost, which offers natural freezing and provides a fail-safe method for conserving the seeds at the correct temperature even in the case of electrical failure. And secondly, because the potential dangers of global warming were taken into account when the vault was being constructed.
The vault's location, 1340 metres above sea level, should theoretically ensure that the soil is always dry, even if sea level rises due to melting polar ice. 'The seed vault is protected by permafrost for the foreseeable future,' assured Ola Westengen, coordinator of the Nordic Genetic Resource Centre, two years ago. 'It is located high up enough to avoid the worst scenarios of global warming.'
But now it looks as though they might have to rethink their calculations.
'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,' Ketil Isaksen, from Norway's Meteorological Institute, told Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet.
'It was supposed to [operate] without the help of humans, but now we are watching the seed vault 24 hours a day,' Aschim told The Guardian. 'We must see what we can do to minimise all the risks and make sure the seed bank can take care of itself.'
The question is whether the unusually high temperatures will be repeated next winter. In the meantime, the facility's supervisors are taking precautions – such as waterproofing the walls of the access tunnel and digging trenches along the slopes of the mountain to channel meltwater – to ensure that the incident does not happen again and potentially endanger the seeds.
'We have to find solutions,' added Aschim. 'It is a big responsibility and we take it very seriously. We are doing this for the world.'
Despite the team's optimism, it is hard not to read the incident as a twisted joke about the future that awaits us all: a theoretically impregnable construction in one of the safest places on Earth – created for the express purpose of protecting crop biodiversity from any potential catastrophe – is threatened by global warming. The damn irony.