More than 360 feet inside the belly of the 1,500-foot Platåberget mountain in Nordenskiöld Land on the island of Spitsbergen in Svalbard, Norway, is a vault that contains humanity’s ultimate food security. Locked in airtight boxes at minus 18 degrees Celsius lie millions of seeds of crop varieties — from Indian rice to Uzbek corn.
This deep-freezer of the world’s food supplies — the Svalbard Global Seed Vault (SGSV) facility — recently faced a grave existential threat: the permafrost around the entrance of the so-called “doomsday” vault melted, flooding the access tunnel with water.
Permafrost refers to the perennially frozen soil found in the Earth’s higher latitudes. Technically, it is ground (which could be soil and/or rock) that remains at or below a temperature of 0°C for at least 2 consecutive years.
On Saturday, the builders of the SGSV announced that repairs were under way at the facility, and that water had reached no seeds. “After nine years of operation, Svalbard Global Seed Vault is facing technical improvements in connection with water intrusion in the outer part of the access tunnel because the permafrost has not established itself as projected,” Statsbygg, the Norwegian state construction group, said in a release.
“The seeds in the seed vault have never been threatened and will remain safe during implementation of the measures,” it said, adding that “The measures are being carried out to provide additional security to the seed vault, based on a precautionary (‘better safe than sorry’) approach.”
Norway’s government owns the vault; Statsbygg is responsible for the administration of the physical installation and its technical operation.
The thaw in the permafrost around the entrance of the facility is likely the result of consistently rising global temperatures. Sixteen of the 17 warmest years in the Earth’s 136-year record have all occurred since 2001, and 2016 was the warmest year on record. At the poles, sea ice extent is currently at or near record lows.
After breaching the access tunnel, the water froze before entering the vaults themselves. Breaking through the ice and discovering the more than 8,64,000 samples (of 500 seeds each) safe, took some time.
But the question now haunting scientists and managers of the vault is whether it might happen again.
The SGSV, commissioned in 2008, is built to withstand manmade and natural disasters. It is theoretically protected against conventional bombs, and sits out of reach of rising sea levels. Seeds of Indian origin numbering 9,44,57,537 have been sent to Svalbard. It also has its National Genebank, which, according to the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, is one of the world’s most modern, and has a capacity to store up to 1.25 million samples.
“Such genebanks are very important for conserving seeds for the future,” said Dr R K Tyagi, head of Germplasm Conservation at the National Bureau of Plant Genetics Resources in New Delhi. “We recently accessed our seed bank to send red rice variety to Himachal Pradesh where they had stopped cultivating it because of its low yield. Its medicinal properties were only gradually understood.”
The last time the contents of the Svalbard vault were accessed was in 2015, when the Syrian conflict had made it difficult to access seeds of drought- and heat-resistant local wheat.
THE VAULT is 145.9 m from the front door of the portal building to the back of the vault. Each vault is approximately 27 m long, 9.5 m to 10 m wide, and 6 m high.
STORAGE capacity is 4.5 million seed samples (500 seeds/sample). Seeds are stored at –18 degrees Celsius in specially-designed four-ply foil packages that are placed in sealed boxes. Depositors retain ownership rights.