The Doomsday vault which secures and protects genetic material on a remote island between Norway and the North Pole is undergoing a series of strengthening measures following “water intrusion”.
There has been no damage to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, the world’s backup for crop collections, or the seeds themselves, stress representatives of the Crop Trust, The Royal Ministry of Agriculture and Food in Norway and Statsbygg, a Norwegian government agency that manages real estate including the vault.
However large volumes of water did get into the tunnel which leads to the vault.
According to a blurb on Crop Trust’s website this “fail-safe seed storage facility is built to stand the test of time and the challenges of natural or man-made disasters.”
Earlier this year, the Commonwealth Potato Collection (CPC), a priceless repository of potato genetic material that was held in trust by the James Hutton Institute, became the first ever British deposit in the seed vault.
Currently, the vault holds more than 880,000 samples, originating from almost every country in the world and ranging from unique varieties of major African and Asian food staples like maize, rice, wheat, cowpea, and sorghum to European and South American varieties of aubergine, lettuce, barley, and potato.
Speaking with PBUK, Statsbygg communications director, Hege Ngaa Aschem, explains that the water actually got into the tunnel last autumn during a highly “unusual” weather pattern.
“Last autumn we had extreme weather with very high temperatures and a lot of rain. It has never been like that before, it was very unusual. It should have been many degrees below zero at that time,” she says.
“But all of this rain caused water intrusion and we have seen very small water intrusions before, from melt water going down and accumulating, but this time it was a lot and the water went about 15 metres inside the tunnel.
“The tunnel is very long and leads to the seed vault. It’s very important to note that the seeds and the seed vault were never at risk. Nothing has been damaged, but we will not take any chances or risk anything. We should not have water in the tunnel.”
This is why a team is working on new measures to bolster the vault which includes technical improvements in connection with water intrusion in the outer part of the access tunnel because the permafrost is not working as first projected.
All seed depositors and the public are being assured that the seeds will remain completely safe while improvements continue to prevent further incidents.
“We have started taking out the heat sources like electrical equipment and put that outside. And we are now making ditches in the mountain side to prevent melting water and even rain water if it should come back like it did last autumn, and so it will not go further down to the entrance of the tunnel,” Aschem adds.
“We are also creating a water safe, water-proof wall inside the tunnel between the entrance and the seed vault itself so if anything should come in, like water, it will stop there.
“When a large amount of water comes, it pushes the tunnel and then squeezes inside but the tunnel is built in permafrost and the water we have seen before has been in very small amounts and it has been no problem. But we have become concerned because we have seen that the permafrost around this tunnel has not stabilised as it was planned.”
Aschem continues that the measures are being carried out to provide additional security to the seed vault, based on a precautionary or “better safe than sorry” approach.