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‘Doomsday’ seed vault entrance repaired after thaw of Arctic ice

Water seeps into hallway of vault in rare Arctic thaw; seeds not at risk

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, built in Norway in 2008, is the world's largest secure seed storage site. (Matthias Heyde photo courtesy Government of Norway via Flickr)

Oslo | Reuters — Norway is repairing the entrance of a “doomsday” seed vault on an Arctic island after an unexpected thaw of permafrost let water into a building meant as a deep freeze to safeguard the world’s food supplies.

The water, limited to the 15-metre entrance hall in the melt late last year, had no impact on millions of seeds of crops including rice, maize, potatoes and wheat that are stored more than 110 metres inside the mountainside.

Still, water was an unexpected problem for the vault on the Svalbard archipelago, about 1,000 km from the North Pole. It seeks to safeguard seeds from cataclysms such as nuclear war or disease in natural permafrost.

“Svalbard Global Seed Vault is facing technical improvements in connection with water intrusion,” Norwegian state construction group Statsbygg, which built the vault that opened in 2008, said in a statement on Saturday.

“The seeds in the seed vault have never been threatened.”

Spokeswoman Hege Njaa Aschim said Statsbygg had removed electrical equipment from the entrance — a source of heat — and was building waterproof walls inside and ditches outside to channel away any water.

The number of visitors would be reduced to limit human body heat, she said. Some of the water that flowed in re-froze and had to be chipped out by workers from the local fire service.

An underlying problem was that permafrost around the entrance of the vault, which had thawed from the heat of construction a decade ago, has not re-frozen as predicted by scientists, Aschim said.

Temperatures in the Arctic region have been rising at twice the global average in a quickening trend that climate scientists blame on man-made greenhouse gases. Svalbard has sometimes had rain even in the depths of winter when the sun does not rise.

“There’s no doubt that the permafrost will remain in the mountainside where the seeds are,” said Marie Haga, head of the Bonn-based Crop Trust that works with Norway to run the vault. “But we had not expected it to melt around the tunnel.”

Haga said the trust had so far raised just over $200 million towards an $850 million endowment fund to help safeguard seeds in collections around the globe (all figures US$). “That is an extremely cheap insurance policy for the world,” she said.

USC Canada, a charity supporting “ecological agriculture” and seed diversity, said in a release Friday the flooding incident “reaffirms more than ever the critical importance of keeping seed diversity in farmers’ hands.”

“It is a relief to hear that none of the seeds in the collection were harmed, but these events are far from reassuring,” USC co-executive director Martin Settle said. “Climate change has already broken through the vault’s defenses, and these are the early days of permafrost melt. In the long term, how safe are the seeds?”

While USC Canada said it “supports Svalbard as a seed bank of last resort,” USC Canada’s other co-executive director Jane Rabinowicz said “there is no single solution to conserving the genetic diversity we need to feed the planet.”

— Alister Doyle is an environment correspondent for Reuters based in Oslo. Includes files from Network staff.

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