Tech by VICE

The Doomsday Seed Vault Is Getting Upgrades to Withstand Climate Change

It flooded earlier this year and now it’s getting waterproofed.

by Lisa Cumming
Jun 13 2017, 5:07pm

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Image: Christopher Michel/Flickr

The "failsafe" Svalbard Global Seed Vault in the remote Norwegian Arctic is getting some major upgrades so that it can withstand breaches related to climate change, and fulfill its mission of protecting the world's crops against both catastrophic and incremental loss.

This follows a flood in May that saw rising temperatures lead to melting and heavy rain that flooded the entrance of the tunnel, then froze over.

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The vault was built 1,300 km north of the Arctic Circle to house the world's most precious seeds. It's the world's largest secure seed storage. Crates of seeds are sent from all over the world to be stored there, and it's designed as backup storage for other countries' seed vaults.

Thankfully, no seeds were damaged in the flood. NOK 14 million ($1.6 million US) has been set aside for investigations and design work. The Guardian reports that Norway will spend NOK 37 million ($4.4 million) to fix the vault, which was built in 2008.

"The permafrost has not established itself as planned"

The vault was built deep into Arctic permafrost, an environment that seemed secure to its designers. But climate change has caused the permafrost to become unpredictable as it thaws.

"The background to the technical improvements is that the permafrost has not established itself as planned," said a statement from the Norwegian government. "[A group] will investigate potential solutions to counter the increased water volumes resulting from a wetter and warmer climate on Svalbard."

Read More: Syria Is Making the First Withdrawal from the 'Doomsday' Arctic Seed Vault

Planned improvements include new drainage ditches, a waterproof wall will that will act as extra protection against flooding, and terrain levelling to prevent water accumulating around the access tunnel. This will protect against any future water intrusion as a result of climate change. The changes are to be implemented through this year and next year.

Norway has already relocated the transformer station to outside of the tunnel, removing a heat source. Crop Trust, an international group dedicated to crop diversity, said in a statement that this would protect against water entering the tunnel resulting from climate change.

With climate changing rapidly reshaping the Arctic, the vault will continue to face pressures and these upgrades are in an effort to be "better safe than sorry," Crop Trust's statement says, adding that further, more extensive measures could be introduced in the future.

As the permafrost continues to thaw, and the Arctic gets greener, protecting this doomday vault against climate change in the North will become an increasingly difficult task. Here's to hoping that the seed vault is up to it.

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