Svalbard "Doomsday" Seed Vault To Get Revamp After Permafrost Melt Leak

The interior of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is around 1,000 m2 (~11,000 sq ft). Mari Tefre/Svalbard Globale frøhvelv

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault (more commonly known as the Doomsday Vault) is a fortress buried deep in the Arctic to safeguard the world’s seeds from environmental crisis, catastrophic wars, and anything else humanity chucks at the world. But last month, it was faced with an early warning from the environment when melted permafrost leaked into the vault's downward-sloping entrance tunnel. Doh.  

In the light of this minor hiccup, the seed bank is now receiving a multimillion dollar revamp.

The work is being carried out on a “better safe than sorry” philosophy, the Norwegian caretakers announced in a statement, as no seeds were harmed in the recent flooding and the Crop Trust insists the vault is still “a very safe installation”.

"No worries! The seeds are safe and the building is being improved to prevent any further issues," Global Crop Diversity Trust echoed in a Facebook post. "It does show that we need to take climate change seriously."

The vault's renovation work will involve investigating alternative access tunnels, improved drainage ditches, waterproofed walls, removing heat sources in the tunnel, carrying out further research on the surrounding permafrost, and increased surveillance around the entrances. These measures are expected to take place from now until 2018. The bill will be footed by the Norwegian government, who own the vault and entirely funded its initial $9 million construction.

“For me, it is obvious to build an entrance tunnel upwards, so the water can run out,” Arne Kristoffersen, a former coal miner who used to work in the Svalbard area, told the Guardian. “I am really surprised they made such a stupid construction.”

Located in the remote Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, the seed bank is found at the end of a 130-meter (426-foot) tunnel deep inside the mountain, which is kept frozen by both permafrost and artificial freezing. It currently holds more than 930,000 seed samples and has the capacity to store a total of 4.5 million varieties.

Its purpose is to catalog and store samples of the world’s most precious seeds, including samples from the US, the UK, Mexico, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Belarus, Benin, India, Pakistan, Lebanon, and Morocco. These samples will be used as a backup genebank, in the event of local genebanks being lost due to catastrophes, war, mismanagement, funding cuts, or natural disasters.

The vault has only been in action since 2008 but it’s already had some success stories. When war struck Syria in 2015, the International Center for Agriculture Research in the Dry Areas in Aleppo requested seeds from Svalbard so it could continue its breeding programs in Morocco and Lebanon. After success with their project, the seeds were returned to the Svalbard bank earlier this year.

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