Norwegian seed bank built to withstand the end of the world is having trouble already

The new money will help protect humanity's last hope from the dangers coming to threaten it

Andrew Griffin
Tuesday 27 February 2018 17:59 GMT
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault

A bunker built to withstand the world's most extreme dangers needs to be even more secure.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway was built to look after the future of mankind. But as the species faces difficulty so does the bank, and the Norwegian government will spend $10 million on upgrading the vault so that it can last against its challenges.

Famously, the bunker – which sits in the wastes of an Arctic island – was hit by freak weather events in late 2016, showing the dangers that are faced by the vault despite the fact it was built to withstand the end of the world. The new money will fund the “construction of a new, concrete-built access tunnel, as well as a service building to house emergency power and refrigerating units and other electrical equipment that emits heat through the tunnel".

The vault was built to help humanity live through and withstand the most profound challenges that face it: the destruction of the environment and the important things it provides for us. If we were hit by a destructive event like climate change or even nuclear war, we would turn to the library of seeds to replenish what we'd lost.

Among the challenges facing agriculture, experts have said, are rising hunger, population growth and greater climate pressures.

That means the world needs to produce more food that is more nutritious, and to do so "on less land, with less water, less pesticides, less fertiliser to keep within what the planet can stand", Haga said.

The Svalbard archipelago, the furthest north reachable on a scheduled flight, was chosen for the vault's location because it is remote, there are no volcanoes or earthquakes, and the permafrost keeps the seeds in deep-freeze.

Yet the vault, built 120 metres (400 feet) into the rock, is facing its own climate pressures.

An unexpected thaw of permafrost meant water flowed into the entrance of the vault's tunnel in late 2016. The seeds were not in danger, but Norway said on Friday it would spend 100 million krone ($13 million) to upgrade the vault.

"When I came up here the first time in 1985 ... there was always ice on the fjord. Now you never see complete ice on the fjord," Haga said.

Scientists have warned that the Arctic Ocean could be ice-free much sooner than previous predictions, which forecast sea ice would first disappear completely during summer months between 2040 and 2050.

Fowler said he was confident the seeds were safe, but welcomed Norway's decision to strengthen the vault.

"We'll be tight and dry and we'll deal with whatever climate change gives us," he said.

Additional reporting by Reuters

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