Don’t panic: The seeds are still safe and secure.
Deep underground in the far reaches of the arctic North, there’s a fortress that’s supposed to be one of humanity’s safeguards if we can’t feed ourselves in the future. It’s a vault containing 500 million seeds, representing 880,000 different crops, many of which can’t be found in fields today. It’s the ultimate failsafe if the world’s farms burn or diseases decimate our staples and we have to start over. The facility is supposed to keep these seeds safe for hundreds of years, without human oversight.
What the designers weren’t counting on so much: floods linked to climate change.
The Guardian is reporting that a flood due to melting arctic permafrost has breached the facility, creating an icy mess. The seeds are safe for now — they’re packaged in moisture-proof bags, and the flood didn’t reach the vault, just the entrance. Still, it caught the facility managers by surprise. The Guardian reports:
Soaring temperatures in the Arctic at the end of the world’s hottest ever recorded year led to melting and heavy rain, when light snow should have been falling. “It was not in our plans to think that the permafrost would not be there and that it would experience extreme weather like that,” said Hege Njaa Aschim, from the Norwegian government, which owns the vault.
(Update: According to new reporting from Popular Science, it turns out that there’s some water intrusion into the front of the facility most summers as seasonal meltwater creeps its way in. Popular Science also reports that the seed vault is a bit uphill from the entrance. So it would take much, much more water to overwhelm the seeds. In any case, it’s something to monitor. The amount of meltwater this season was unexpected. And in the arctic, that’s concerning.)
The “doomsday” vault’s location — inside a mountain on a Norwegian archipelago — was chosen in part for its cold temperatures. They make refrigerating the seeds for long-term preservation easy, without the need for energy-consuming refrigerators. It can run — so its architects hoped — without human supervision.