Imagine rummaging through your refrigerator in the dead of the night, desperate for a quick bite to eat, only to be turned away by shelves full of rotting food. Now, imagine that this desolate night was spread over not just a few hours but possibly a few hundred years, and the refrigerator you were counting on was a gigantic seed vault designed with the explicit purpose of preserving enough botanical diversity to cover the entire nutritional spectrum – imagine that this sneaky little secret called global warming (which some current-day global leaders are so insistent on denying) was causing water dripping off melting ice caps to flood the refrigerator, laying waste to mankind’s carefully laid plans.
MANKIND’S LAST HOPE – SVALBARD GLOBAL SEED VAULT
This is exactly what struck the Norwegian government, when it realized that the carefully-designed, ‘fail-safe’ Svalbard Global Seed Vault was at a risk of being submerged in meltwater, which could lead to potentially disastrous consequences if left unchecked. With 2016 being officially designated as the World’s Hottest Ever Recorded Year, average temperatures in Svalbard were up to 7 degrees C higher than normal. This led to the ice caps melting and also caused heavy rain at a time when the region should have ideally been experiencing light snowfall. And so, water came gushing into the entrance tunnel of the seed vault, raising numerous questions about how ‘fail safe’ the vault really was.
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, or the Arctic Seed Vault as it is sometimes known, is located inside a mountain on the Norwegian Spitsbergen Island in the Arctic Svalbard archipelago. Less than 1,500 km away from the North Pole, the vault contains close to a million packets of seeds of important food crop. The idea behind the vault is to preserve these seeds to ensure that mankind has enough food to sustain itself during a regional or global cataclysmic event that makes other sources hard to come by.
In such scenarios, these can be used to seed botanical life on the planet. The vault itself was specially designed to allow the seeds to survive until they are called upon, without human intervention. The vault also functions as a backup for the world’s 1,750 seed banks, and contains copies of samples stored in the depositing banks.
Inside the vault, seeds are stored inside foil packages, at temperatures of –18 degrees C. The site was specially chosen taking into account its low temperature that would cut down refrigeration costs, while limited supply to oxygen will delay seed ageing by reducing metabolic activity. The vault was sunk through deep permafrost in 2008 – a move that was believed would keep these seeds safe for hundreds of years. The fall of 2016 challenged that notion, when meltwater caused by unusually hot weather coupled with uncharacteristic rain caused water to go gushing into the entry tunnel.
SAFE AGAIN, FOR NOW
Packaged in moisture-proof bags, the seeds did not suffer any damage. The water that entered the tunnel also froze to ice, sealing off the entrance. The vault’s managers are currently investigating if a relapse can be anticipated, and if the situation will escalate in times to come. They are also undertaking precautionary measures, including waterproofing the 100m tunnel and digging trenches that will divert the meltwater and rain. Electronic equipment stored in the tunnel has been moved and pumps installed inside the vault to protect against future floods. The Norwegian government has pledged to spend USD 4.4 million towards these and other upgrades.
Global warming-induced climate change can lead to several unforeseen consequences, with the flooding of the seed vault being only a (relatively) minor warning sign. What is far more alarming though is that the long-term impact caused by climate change might necessitate using the seeds stored in the vault much sooner than we had ever planned.
Have we piqued your interest? Do you want to see how the vault looks like? Check this out..
Video Credits: Veritasium