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Climate change

‘The final back-up’: Arctic ‘doomsday’ vault that stores thousands of seeds damaged by climate change

The vault currently stores more than 880,000 seed samples from nearly every country in the world, including food staples such as maize, rice, wheat, cowpea and sorghum from Africa and Asia

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 May, 2017, 12:57pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 May, 2017, 9:38pm

Norway said it would boost protection of a seed storage vault ­designed to protect the world’s crops from disaster, after soaring temperatures caused water to leak into its entrance.

Deep inside a mountain on a remote Arctic island in a Norwegian archipelago, the ­Svalbard Global Seed Vault, dubbed the “doomsday” vault, can store up to 2.5 billion seeds.

Freezing temperatures inside the vault keep the seeds ­usable for a long time. Permafrost and thick rock should guarantee they are frozen and secure.

But in October 2016, said to be the warmest year on record, melting permafrost caused water to leak about 15 metres into the ­entrance of a 100-metre tunnel ­inside the vault.

No damage was caused to the seeds, which are safe inside the vault at a temperature of minus 18 degrees Celsius.

But the vault’s managers are now building a waterproof wall inside for additional protection, a Norwegian government spokeswoman said, adding that all heat sources would also be removed from inside the vault.

“It’s not good to have unnecessary heat inside” if water is coming in and permafrost is melting, Hege Njaa Aschim said.

“We have to [be] prepared to do anything to protect the seed vault,” she said.

The vault currently stores more than 880,000 seed samples from nearly every country in the world, including food staples such as maize, rice, wheat, cowpea and sorghum from Africa and Asia. It also protects European and South American varieties of aubergine, lettuce, barley and potatoes.

“The water that leaked in had turned into ice ... we had it removed”, Aschim said. Norwegian authorities are “taking this very seriously” and “following it ­continuously”, she said.

There are 1,700 gene banks around the world that safeguard collections of food crops and many are exposed to natural disasters and wars, according to the Global Crop Diversity Trust.

The Svalbard vault was opened in 2008 with the aim of providing a “fail-safe seed storage facility, built to stand the test of time and the challenge of natural or man-made disasters” the organisation says on its website. “It is the final back-up.”

Each country that deposits seeds into the vault has control and access to their own material.