The Norwegian Island of Spitsbergen, part of the Arctic Svalbard archipelago, is home to the Global Seed Vault where duplicate samples and spare copies of important seeds are stored. The vault, also called the Doomsday Vault, is an attempt to guarantee the seeds are safe even after large-scale or even global catastrophes.
The seeds are kept at -18°C (-0.4°F) with minimum access to oxygen in order to delay aging as much as possible. One of the failsafes in the event electricity were to cease is the surrounding permafrost, the frozen soil common in such northern territories. However, a new report by the Norwegian Government shows that the Svalbard Islands are facing significant changes due to global warming.
By the last quarter of the century, the report expects air temperatures on the islands to increase by about 10°C (18°F ) if there’s only a minimum curbing of gas emissions and by about 7°C (13°F ) if there is a more significant cut of greenhouse gases. The increase in heat will lead to a thawing of the permafrost, which will turn the solid ground around the facility into mush, likely liberating more methane and carbon dioxide currently frozen in the soil. A few years ago, the thawing permafrost put the vault in jeopardy by flooding it.
But it’s not just temperature changes: rain will become more common and be more intense, the snow season will become shorter, and avalanches and landslides will become more common. While this is all looking at the future post-2071, a look at just the past 50 years reveals dramatic changes already.
“The air temperature in Svalbard has increased by 3 to 5°C during the last 4 to 5 decades. In the later years, there have been episodes of heavy rainfall during winter. Fjords along the west coast have become ice free most of the year. The permafrost has warmed considerably, and there have been a number of avalanches in and near Longyearbyen,” the report states.
The estimates for future changes in the archipelago are based on the global climate model unveiled by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2013. The high-emissions scenario looks at what will happen if there are no changes to our behavior. The medium scenario is for drastic reductions after 2040. The low-emissions scenario of drastic cuts after 2020 is at this point highly unlikely.