Svalbard Global Seed Vault: Not the “Doomsday Seed Vault” But Rather the “Vault of Doom”
The Vault is “supposed to last for eternity”, yet didn't take the effects of climate change into consideration. What about the “unknown unknowns”? [part 1/3]
The sheer sensationalism of doom-laden Internet headlines doled out by journalists raised on Hollywood disaster movies (and now clickbait) recently reared their ugly head again, this time in regards to the venerated Svalbard Global Seed Vault. I'm no fan of what some have misleadingly nicknamed the "Doomsday Seed Vault", but with journalists narrowly clamouring on about some recent hiccoughs that the Vault experienced does the greater catastrophe that the Vault represents get obfuscated. Those recent hiccoughs are certainly nothing to scoff at (as I'll explain), but by missing out on the greater implications they imply does the fundamental problems of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault get missed, those being that not only is the Vault not a "Doomsday Seed Vault" but, and as I'll explain in part 2, that it transforms seed saving into something akin to the art of taxidermy.
To backtrack a bit, in 2003 Cary Fowler – scientist, conservationist, biodiversity activist, and co-author with Pat Mooney of the excellent 1990 book Shattering: Food, Politics, and the Loss of Genetic Diversity – had the idea of creating a storage facility that would provide a backup for the seeds currently stored in the world's 1,700 genebanks (and then some). While saving and preserving seeds is currently something that the "average" person tragically generally pays little to no mind to, if there's one thing more crucial and fundamental to our civilization than fossil fuels then that something would be seed saving, a practice which preceded industrial civilization by about 9,800 years or so. That being so, making backups of seeds, and even backups of backups of seeds, might very well be the most wise thing us humans cultivating away on this planet can do.
Unless, that is, one wants to be rather monolithic – perhaps even megalomaniacal – about it all.
While the Vault's construction tab of US$9 million was entirely covered by the Norwegian government (which in turn owns the Svalbard Global Seed Vault), storage of seeds in the vault is entirely free to users thanks to those costs being covered by the Norwegian government as well as an organization called the Global Crop Diversity Trust. The moniker "Doomsday Seed Vault" is an undeserved misnomer though, because as described on the Global Crop Diversity Trust's website, "The purpose of the Vault is to store duplicates (backups) of seed samples from the world’s crop collections". In other words, the purpose of the Vault is emphatically not to be a knight in shining armour that rescues humanity from some Hollywood-esque apocalypse, which in one sense renders the "Doomsday Seed Vault" nickname somewhat verbose.
To facilitate its publicly-stated mission, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is located on the remote Norwegian island of Svalbard, and while the Vault itself is located 130 metres above sea level so as to be out of harm's way if even all of the world's icecaps melted, it's also tunnelled more than 100 metres into the side of a mountain, a mountain far from any active fault lines and whose surrounding permafrost can keep the seeds perpetually chilled. The idea, as put by Åsmund Asdal of the Nordic Genetic Resource Centre, is that "This is supposed to last for eternity".
That is, that's the idea.
Because when what I presume was some of the world's greatest minds got together to see to it that the seeds of some of the world's most important food crops were saved for posterity, the one calamity that the designers apparently failed to take into account is so absurd that I don't think there's even a witty remark witty enough to describe it. So I'll just go ahead and say it: The one calamity that the designers of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault didn't take into account was... climate change?
From what I can tell I don't think I'm too far off the mark here. Because to backtrack again, here's what recently happened: First of all, and according to NASA and NOAA, the most recent year (in this case 2016) was once again the warmest on record. Secondly, and according to Ketil Isaksen of Norway's Meteorological Institute, "The Arctic and especially Svalbard warms up faster than the rest of the world" (due to what is known as polar amplification). Thirdly, while permafrost of course has an air of permanence to it, it can nonetheless be damaged and made vulnerable when dug into – like when you dig a 100 metre tunnel into it. Combine those three together and what you get is a lot of white stuff melting. To be a bit more specific, and as the New York Times put it just last week,
[W]ater – torrents of it, rush[ed] into the entrance tunnel of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault... [B]ecause the water had short-circuited the electrical system, the electric pumps on site were useless... Local firefighters helped pump out the tunnel until the temperature dropped and the water froze. Townspeople from the village at the mountain's base then brought their own shovels and axes and broke apart the ice sheet by hand.
How is it possible, you might ask, that such an event could happen to the facility meant to "store duplicates (backups) of seed samples from the world’s crop collections"? Well, as stated by Hege Njaa Aschim of the Norwegian government, it turns out that
It was not in our plans to think that the permafrost would not be there and that it would experience extreme weather like that.
Come again? "Extreme weather" – climate change – didn't fit into the "plans" that the Svalbard Global Seed Vault designers and caretakers had in mind for how the permafrost was supposed to behave (as other statements by the Norwegian government have reiterated)?
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.
So although the ice was subsequently "hacked out", this is only the beginning of the absurdity entailed in this story. Because as Aschim also stated – almost giving one the impression that these seed savers of seed savers are holding out for positions in the Donald Trump administration – "The question is whether this is just happening now, or will it escalate?"
Come again and again? The owners of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault are questioning whether or not climate change is going to "escalate"? For real?
Putting aside this absurdity beyond all absurdities, the fact remains that none of the seeds were actually lost in the "flood", a "flood" that supposedly wasn't really a flood. Because as Fowler put it himself,
Flooding is probably not quite the right word to use in this case. In my experience, there's been water intrusion at the front of the tunnel every single year.
Damage control? You can decide for yourself. Because as Fowler also stated,
The tunnel was never meant to be water tight at the front, because we didn’t think we would need that. What happens is, in the summer the permafrost melts, and some water comes in, and when it comes in, it freezes. It doesn't typically go very far.
So okay. Is that to say the designers of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault didn't actually mind too much water making its way in through the front door and freezing on the inside, or that they – Fowler included – didn't really anticipate that climate change might have an effect on all that cold white stuff surrounding the Vault? Whichever it actually is, US$1.6 million has now been earmarked for investigations on how to improve the access tunnel (I'll get to that in part 2), the conclusions due in early-2018. In the meantime, US$4.4 million is being spent on constructing such things as a waterproof wall and drainage ditches.
Anyhow, Fowler also stated that
If there was a worst case scenario where there was so much water, or the pumping systems failed, that it made its way uphill to the seed vault, then it would encounter minus 18 [degrees celsius] and freeze again. Then there's another barrier [the ice] for entry into the seed vault.
In other words, Fowler appears to be stating that not only is he the open-minded kind of guy that likes to go on blind dates, but that he likes to be set up with those who have a penchant for S&M and who go by the name of Miss Murphy. There are of course a lot of Miss Murphys out there who are itching to lay down their unique interpretation of the Law, one of those Laws possibly emanating from Greenland via what is known as glacial isostatic adjustment.
Turns out that the sheer weight of all that ice on neighbouring Greenland has pushed its landmass down by what might be a thousand feet or so, and since the land is "bouncing" back up – and at increasing speeds – due to the melting ice, this could result in "reactivate[d] faults, increase[d] seismic activity, and [increased] pressure on magma chambers that feed volcanoes". In fact, "of particular concern is the continental shelf around Greenland, where a massive melting of the ice sheet might trigger earthquakes strong enough to trigger underwater landslides which in turn could generate tsunamis". Just last month a tsunami did in fact strike the coast of Greenland due to what was believed to be a magnitude four earthquake, and as was stated by a Danish news agency, "for such an earthquake to hit Greenland was 'not normal'". And so while none of this is "normal", it also turns out that "The same process is affecting the islands of Iceland and Svalbard, which also have ice caps", and that "crustal uplift in Greenland, Iceland and Svalbard is accelerating".
Might such a climate change-induced glacial isostatic adjustment cum underwater landslide cum tsunami not only emanate from just the right spot off of Greenland's coast but also make its way through the inlet leading to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault? To make a guess, I'd say probably not. Nonetheless, Miss Murphy's chock-full of interesting tricks up her sleeve, and you never know what her wild imagination will come up with as she goes about laying down the Law with what should probably be known as:
The Vault of Doom!