Don’t panic, humanity’s ‘doomsday’ seed vault is probably still safe

On Friday, a slew of alarming headlines emerged regarding the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Water had apparently breached this “fail-safe” trove of the planet’s seeds that is supposed to protect earth’s food supply in the event of a “doomsday” scenario.

The alleged failure of the vault, buried deep into an Arctic mountainside, had occurred after warmer than usual temperatures had caused a layer of permafrost to melt, “sending meltwater gushing into the entrance tunnel” and presumably putting the world’s most diverse collection of crop seeds at risk, according to the Guardian.

“Arctic stronghold of world’s seeds flooded after permafrost melts,” the newspaper announced.

“The Arctic Doomsday Seed Vault Flooded. Thanks, Global Warming,” Wired stated.

Though water did get past the vault’s threshold, none of the seeds had been damaged. But a spokeswoman for Statsbygg — a group that advises the Norwegian government, which owns the vault — cautioned that it might only be a matter of time before they were.

“A lot of water went into the start of the tunnel and then it froze to ice, so it was like a glacier when you went in,” Statsbygg spokeswoman Hege Njaa Aschim told the Guardian of the water breach. She added that officials were now observing the seed vault around the clock to “minimize all the risks and make sure the seed bank can take care of itself.”

“The question is whether this is just happening now, or will it escalate?” Aschim asked.

On Saturday, Statsbygg seemed to walk back some of those comments in a statement published on the seed vault’s website. Yes, there had been “season-dependent intrusion of water” into the outer part of the seed vault, but the group was now taking precautionary measures to make improvements to the outer tunnel to prevent future occurrences.

“The seeds in the seed vault have never been threatened and will remain safe during implementation of the measures,” the statement read.
According to the statement, the proposed improvements include removing heat sources, such as a transformer station, from the tunnel, as well as constructing drainage ditches on the mountainside to prevent meltwater from accumulating around the entrance. In addition, waterproof walls would be erected inside the tunnel. Finally, to be “better safe than sorry,” Statsbygg says researchers will closely follow the development of permafrost on Svalbard.

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