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26 May 2017

Arctic Seed Vault Flooded by Melting Permafrost

The Arctic Seed Vault was supposed to be an impenetrable fortress designed to safeguard a precious reserve of seeds with the aim of repopulating the planet with flora should widespread disaster ever strike. It is then a legitimate and major cause for concern that the vault was recently flooded by meltwater less than a decade after the facility first began operations.

Img: Mari Tefre/Svalbard Global Seed Vault
Buried deep into a mountain located on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, the vault has become home to almost a million seed packets since it opened in 2008. The location within the Arctic permafrost was supposed to help provide ‘failsafe’ protection against “the challenge of natural or man-made disasters”, but the recent flooding has prompted questions as to whether it is in its current state fit for purpose.

The flooding was caused by soaring temperatures in the Arctic, which led to heavy rain replacing the expected snowfall and the onset of rather rapid melting. Hege Njaa Aschim, speaking on behalf of the Norwegian government, said of the unexpected flooding, “It was not in our plans to think that the permafrost would not be there and that it would experience extreme weather like that.

“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 positive news to draw from this story is the fact that the seeds contained within the vault were not compromised by the flood, and remain in storage at a safe temperature of -18°C. However, concerns are now being expressed as to whether the vault is capable of effectively and reliably achieving the preservative task for which it was designed.

“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.”

In an effort to prevent such issues from occurring again in the future, those responsible for managing the vault are taking steps to further waterproof and secure the facility. Measures now being implemented include waterproofing works on the entrance tunnel and the digging of trenches to drain meltwater away from the vault. Heat-producing electrical equipment has also been removed where possible, and pumps have been installed in the vault to remove any water that may make its way inside.

“We have to find solutions. It is a big responsibility and we take it very seriously. We are doing this for the world,” Aschim said of the recent improvements.

Sam Bonson

Sam is an aspiring novelist with a passion for fantasy and crime thrillers. He is currently working as a content writer, journalist & editor in an attempt to expand his horizons.