Multi-million dollar upgrade planned to secure 'failsafe' Arctic seed vault

The Global Seed Vault, built in the Arctic as an impregnable deep freeze for the world’s most precious food seeds, is to undergo a multi-million dollar upgrade after water from melting permafrost flooded its access tunnel.

No seeds were damaged but the incident undermined the original belief that the vault would be a “failsafe” facility, securing the world’s food supply forever. Now the Norwegian government, which owns the vault, has committed $4.4m (NOK37m) to improvements.

The vault is buried 130m inside a mountain in the Svalbard archipelago and contains almost a million packets of seeds, each a variety of an important food crop. The vault was opened in 2008, sunk deep into the permafrost, and was expected to provide protection against “the challenge of natural or man-made disasters” and “to stand the test of time”.

But the vault’s planners had not anticipated the extreme warm weather seen recently at the end of the world’s hottest ever recorded year. “The background to the technical improvements is that the permafrost has not established itself as planned,” said a government statement. “A group will investigate potential solutions to counter the increased water volumes resulting from a wetter and warmer climate on Svalbard.”

One option could be to replace the access tunnel, which slopes down towards the vault’s main door, carrying water towards the seeds. A new upward sloping tunnel would take water away from the vault.

A former Svalbard coal miner, Arne Kristoffersen, told the Guardian most coal mines on the islands had upward sloping entrance tunnels: “For me it is obvious to build an entrance tunnel upwards, so the water can run out. I am really surprised they made such a stupid construction.”

Hege Njaa Aschim, the Norwegian government’s spokeswoman for the vault, said: “The construction was planned like that because it was practical as a way to go inside and it should not be a problem because of the permafrost keeping it safe. But we see now, when the permafrost is not established, maybe we should do something else with the tunnel, so that is why we have this project now.”

An initial $1.6m will be spent on investigating ways to improve the access tunnel, with the group’s conclusions delivered in spring 2018. “They are going in with an open mind to find a good solution,” said Aschim. “$4.4m is for all the improvements we are doing now.” The vault cost $9m to build.

A transformer station, which gives off heat, has already been moved out of the tunnel, and drainage ditches are to be dug into the mountainside above the seed vault, to channel melt water away from the tunnel. A waterproof wall is also to be constructed inside the access tunnel to provide extra protection for the seed vault itself.

“The measures form part of a long-term plan to provide additional security to the seed vault, based on a precautionary approach,” said the government statement.

The vault was supposed to be able to survive without the need for human intervention, but is currently being watched 24 hours a day, with pumps readied to remove any water. Aschim said the seeds would remain safe at the -18C temperature in the deep vault: “But to be sure, and to take precautions in case something happens, we are doing these other measures now to protect the seeds from anything.”

Kristoffersen began work in 1980 in coalmine Number 3, which later became the site of a pilot seed storage project that preceded the construction of the Global Seed Vault. He said he took part in an initial planning meeting for the seed vault but was not involved in the subsequent development of the plans.

“The whole reason for the Global Seed Vault in Svalbard in the permafrost area is it has to be self sufficient, in case of a really big disaster in the world,” he said. “[If] all the humans in the lower part of the world are destroyed, perhaps a 100 years later the survivors can come here and find the seeds. The seeds will be OK as they are in the [deep] permafrost layer. But as it is today, the whole entrance will be filled up with water and this will freeze and it will be blocked after a few years, so it will not be possible to get into the seed vault. There will be a big iceberg in the tunnel.”

“The solution is easy and I give it for free,” Kristofferson said. “Make a new access tunnel going upward so the water can run out, not into the seed bank. It is not very hard, but it will cost a lot of money.”

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