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food security

The ‘Doomsday’ Seed Vault Might Not Survive Global Warming

Hidden inside an Arctic mountain, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault stores millions of plant samples. But after unexpected flooding last year, efforts to protect the food store have been stepped up.

by Daisy Meager
22 May 2017, 4:23pm

Photo via Flickr user aronschmukle

In many parts of the world, the effect of climate change on agriculture is already a harsh reality. For others, it's only a matter of time before increased temperatures and adverse weather conditions severely inhibit crop growth.

Which is where the Svalbard Global Seed Vault—a.k.a. the "Doomsday Vault"—comes in. The Arctic storage facility was constructed by the Norwegian government in 2008 with the aim of storing and protecting millions of dried seed samples from threats to crop diversity, including war, natural disasters, and climate change.

But now, the safety of the seed bank itself has come under threat from global warming.

In October last year, unseasonably high temperatures in the Arctic caused the permafrost surrounding the seed bank to melt, leading to 15 metres of flooding in one of its access tunnels. Today, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault announced that it would be working with climate change experts to implement new protective measures, including drainage ditches and waterproof walls.

As the BBC reports, the vault was built in Svalbard because the permafrost was thought to be, uh, permanent. Last year, however, temperatures there rose to around zero degrees Celsius, rather than the usual minus 10 degrees Celsius.

Seed bank spokesperson Hege Njaa Aschim told the BBC: "Inside the mountain it's safe but the problems we have experienced are just outside and in the front of the tunnel, which is the entrance. So yes, maybe something has changed in the permafrost, but we don't know, and that is what the climate researchers are looking into. [Last October] was like a wet summer in Norway."

Although no seeds were damaged during the flood, the seed bank is taking the risk of future water damage seriously. In a recent press statement, Aschim wrote that it was employing a "better safe than sorry" approach.

To find out why keeping seed samples dry is so important, MUNCHIES reached out to John Dickie, senior research leader and assistant head of collections at the Millennium Seed Bank in Sussex. He told us: "To be able to freeze seeds and slow chemistry down, you've got to be able to dry them. You don't want ice crystals forming when freezing them as it would be damaging. Even if there was a power cut and temperature goes up for a few days, it matters more if the seeds get wet and moisture content goes up."

We also asked Dickie whether climate change could pose a threat to the Sussex seed store.

He said: "The levels of climate change modelled for the UK will affect the vegetation outside but would not affect our seed bank. Once the seeds are dried, they're in sealed containers and the freezers run off a power supply and back-up generators. We might have to spend more money to drive the refrigerators and drying but the seeds would survive."

Let's hope the Svalbard seeds remain similarly safe and dry.