The Global Seed Vault Just Flooded—How Worried Should You Be?

The facility stores seeds from around the world in case disaster strikes.

May 22, 2017
global seed vault in norway
Global Crop Diversity Trust/ Flickr

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Svalbard, Norway currently preserves 864,000 of the world's crop seeds—stored seeds from regional seed banks around the globe—in frozen tunnels 130 yards under a huge mountain. The very important reason: to ensure that we can maintain plant biodiversity in case something catastrophic happens (think: natural or man-made disasters, diseases, or rising temperatures that have the ability to wipe out entire plant varieties).

But last week, numerous news outlets started reporting that this “fail-safe” seed stronghold, this backup plan to all the other backup plans, was flooding due to unexpected melting of permafrost (the layer of soil that typically remains frozen year round). 

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According to The Guardian, “soaring temperatures in the Arctic at the end of the world’s hottest ever recorded year led to melting and heavy rain, when light snow should have been falling,” which sent meltwater “gushing into the entrance of the tunnel.”

That water, however, did not damage any seeds. Water entered the 100 meter long tunnel—which slopes down and then up again before reaching the actual vault—and froze, at which point the ice was hacked out and removed by vault workers. (Check out these 6 tips for storing your saved seeds for up to 3 years.)

So, how much should this actually worry us? While the headlines have certainly been sensational, some experts are calling for calm. In a Popular Science article, Cary Fowler, senior adviser to the Global Crop Diversity Trust who helped create the seed vault, told the publication that there has been at least some “water intrusion” at front of the tunnel (which was never designed to be completely water-tight) every single year. Granted, this time it was a larger breach than usual.

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Fowler believes the seeds are safe for now, even in a worst case scenario—“water that floods into the tunnel has to make it 100 meters downhill, then back uphill, then overwhelm the pumping systems, and then manage not to freeze at well-below-freezing temperatures,” reads the article. “Otherwise, there's no way liquid is getting into the seed bank.”

That said, it’s still disconcerting to have enough meltwater enter the vault’s tunnel that it requires removal—especially since the structure was meant to operate with very little human assistance. And that’s why, as The Guardian article reports, the Norwegian government, which operates the seed vault, is taking action: Vault managers are now working on waterproofing the 100-meter tunnel and digging trenches to channel meltwater and rain away, along with removing some electrical equipment that emitted heat and installing additional water pumps in case of future flooding. (Here are 9 little things you can do to fight climate change every single day.)

 

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Bottom line: This breach to the world’s largest seed storage facility may not be an immediate threat, but it is yet another wakeup call that we need to keep a close eye on rising global temperatures and adapt our seed saving strategies accordingly. Otherwise, our planet (and our dinner plates) could look a whole lot different one day.