After an unusually warm winter as a result of climate change, the Global Seed Vault, located inside a mountain within the Arctic circle, has faced a breach by waters from thawing permafrost. Though no seeds were damaged, the breach has raised questions about the security of the seed vault, created to ensure a food supply for humanity in a global crisis scenario. The past year was the hottest ever recorded in the Arctic, which led to melting snow, heavy rains, and thawing permafrost – events not foreseen when the vault was designed.

The Global Seed Vault was opened in 2008 by the Norwegian government, on the island of Spitsbergen in the Svalbard archipelago. It now contains nearly one million packets of seeds, each of which contain a valuable food crop. When the vault was first set up, it was sunk in permafrost that was expected to provide a layer of “failsafe” protection against “the challenge of natural or man-made disasters.” Average temperatures on the island were as high as 7 degrees Celsius above normal levels at the end of last year.

“It was not in our plans to think that the permafrost would not be there and that it would experience extreme weather like that,” according to Hege Njaa Aschim, from the Norwegian government.

“A lot of water went into the start of the tunnel and then it froze to ice, so it was like a glacier when you went in,” she added.

The ice was removed and the seeds are currently safe, but the incident has raised new issues for the vault.

Aschim explained:

“It was supposed to [function] without the help of humans, but now we are watching the seed vault 24 hours a day. We must see what we can do to minimize all the risks and make sure the seed bank can take care of itself.”

The next step for the managers of the vault will be to wait, observing if the high temperatures seen over the winter are indicative of temperatures in the future. For now, they are taking precautions such as waterproofing the tunnel into the mountain, and digging trenches nearby to stop meltwater and rain from building up. Pumps have been installed inside the vault, in case of future flooding.

“We have to find solutions. It is a big responsibility and we take it very seriously. We are doing this for the world,” Aschim said.

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