Humanity’s ‘doomsday’ seed vault is probably still safe

The Washington Post

On Friday, a slew of alarming headlines emerged regarding the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Water had apparently breached this “fail-safe” trove of the planet’s seeds that is supposed to protect earth’s food supply in the event of a “doomsday” scenario.

The alleged failure of the vault, buried deep into an Arctic mountainside, had occurred after warmer than usual temperatures had caused a layer of permafrost to melt, “sending meltwater gushing into the entrance tunnel” and presumably putting the world’s most diverse collection of crop seeds at risk, according to the Guardian.

“Arctic stronghold of world’s seeds flooded after permafrost melts,” the newspaper announced.

“The Arctic Doomsday Seed Vault Flooded. Thanks, Global Warming,” Wired stated.

Though water did get past the vault’s threshold, none of the seeds had been damaged. But a spokeswoman for Statsbygg — a group that advises the Norwegian government, which owns the vault — cautioned that it might only be a matter of time before they were.

“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,” Statsbygg spokeswoman Hege Njaa Aschim told the Guardian of the water breach.

On Saturday, Statsbygg seemed to walk back some of those comments in a statement published on the seed vault’s website. Yes, there had been “season-dependent intrusion of water” into the outer part of the seed vault, but the group was now taking precautionary measures to make improvements to the outer tunnel to prevent future occurrences.

“The seeds in the seed vault have never been threatened and will remain safe during implementation of the measures,” the statement read.

According to the statement, the proposed improvements include removing heat sources, such as a transformer station, from the tunnel, as well as constructing drainage ditches on the mountainside to prevent meltwater from accumulating around the entrance. In addition, waterproof walls would be erected inside the tunnel. Finally, to be “better safe than sorry,” Statsbygg says researchers will closely follow the development of permafrost on Svalbard.

“The seeds are safe and sound,” tweeted the Crop Trust, an international nonprofit group that helped establish the Svalbard vault in 2008.

So which is it? Is the fact that some water seeped into a “fail-safe” vault no big deal? Or are we as a human race doomed to die, starving and cropless, in the event of global catastrophe?

The answer is more measured. Representatives for Statsbygg and Crop Trust did not immediately respond to an emailed interview request Saturday. However, Crop Trust on Saturday twice retweeted a Popular Science article that seemed to indicate the situation was not as dire as had been initially reported.

“In my experience, there’s been water intrusion at the front of the tunnel every single year,” Cary Fowler, an American agriculturist who helped create the seed vault, told the magazine. Though he was not at the vault to observe the incident, he noted that “flooding” was probably not the most accurate word to describe what happened.

“The tunnel was never meant to be watertight at the front, because we didn’t think we would need that,” Fowler told Popular Science. “What happens is, in the summer the permafrost melts, and some water comes in, and when it comes in, it freezes. It doesn’t typically go very far.”

However, that doesn’t mean that the underlying cause for the melting permafrost – warming temperatures – should be ignored.

“At the end of the day we have to realize that in a sense, everything is relative with this initiative,” Fowler told the magazine. “This whole planet is warming, and that includes Svalbard.”

Global warming has been particularly noticeable in the Arctic regions, and the melting of permafrost is only one consequence; another includes the melting of major glaciers, which could lead to a dramatic sea-level rise, as The Post’s Chris Mooney reported.

Currently, the vault holds nearly 900,000 seed samples, from maize and sorghum from Africa and Asia to barley and eggplant from Europe and South America. It has the capacity to store up to 4.5 million crop varieties, or about 2.5 billion seeds, according to the vault website.

Inside, imposing concrete walls shelter those seeds at minus-18 degrees Celsius (minus-0.4 degrees Fahrenheit). From the outside, only a portion of the entrance is visible as it juts out at an angle from the snow and ice. It looks like the type of structure you might get if you commissioned I.M. Pei to design an Arctic hideaway for a James Bond film.

When they chose to build the seed vault on Svalbard, the site was chosen for its accessible location, geological stability, low humidity levels and its perch well above sea level. Officials just hadn’t anticipated the permafrost would melt into the entrance.

“There’s no doubt that the permafrost will remain in the mountainside where the seeds are,” Marie Haga, head of Crop Trust, told Reuters. “But we had not expected it to melt around the tunnel.”

For his part, Fowler has always maintained confidence in the seed vault’s ability to endure natural or man-made disasters. In 2015, he told then-Guardian reporter Suzanne Goldenberg that perhaps an atomic bomb dropped on top of the mountain would be the only thing that could destroy the vault. Fowler repeated those sentiments to Popular Science on Friday.

“We did this calculation; if all the ice in the world melted – Greenland, Arctic, Antarctic, everything – and then we had the world’s largest recorded tsunami right in front of the seed vault … what would happen to the seed vault?” Fowler told the magazines. “We found that the seed vault was somewhere between a five and seven story building above that point. It might not help the road leading up to the seed vault, but the seeds themselves would be okay.”

In other words, there are no guarantees about humanity in that scenario. But the seed vault is probably going to be fine.

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