Climate change

Melting permafrost has flooded the global seed vault

The Global Seed Vault, which has been called “the Noah’s Ark of plant diversity,” has flooded after the permafrost around it thawed.

The frozen safe house, designed to protect the seeds of tens of thousands of food crops from global disaster, opened in 2008 in Svalbard, Norway. The vault hold seeds from every country in the world to safeguard agriculture against man-made or natural disaster.

“Workers in gene banks, farmers have struggled to produce all these seeds and sent them here because they feel safe when they send the seeds here,” the vault’s coordinator Asmund Asdal said last year in a Motherboard documentary about the seed vault, where he also compares it to the Biblical ship.

Encased in permafrost, the earth around the vault that has been frozen for thousands of years was meant to protect the seeds indefinitely. But according to The Guardian, unusually warm temperatures and heavy rain flooded the entrance to the vault — although the water didn’t reach the seeds inside.

“It was supposed to [operate] without the help of humans, but now we are watching the seed vault 24 hours a day,” a Norwegian government spokesperson told The Guardian. The vault’s creators hadn’t envisioned weather this extreme, she said.

Work is now underway to waterproof the tunnel that leads to the vault. Electrical equipment that was warming the tunnel has been removed and new pumps are being added. Workers are also digging channels to divert water away from the vault.

The location of the Svalbard seed vaultGoogle Earth

Across the Arctic, signs of a warming climate are striking. From Siberia to Norway to Canada, the permafrost, which is ground that is frozen year round, is collapsing. And as the permafrost thaws, it is releasing methane and carbon dioxide — potent greenhouse gases that scientists warn will accelerate climate change.

Polar regions are warming faster than any area of the planet, and polar bears in Canada and Norway are spending up to three weeks longer on land due to the fickle sea ice.

Cover: Photo via Global Crop Diversity Trust

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