Tech The doomsday vault that's supposed to store every known crop on the planet is in danger

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If everything goes wrong — if because of disaster, climate change, or nuclear war, life as we know it comes to an end, with parts of the earth rendered inhospitable with widespread environmental devastation — the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is a resource that could come to our rescue.

Hidden about 400 feet inside a mountain on a remote island between mainland Norway and the North Pole, the vault stores valuable seeds from crops all over the world. It's supposed to be protected and stay at a safe temperature to store all those seeds.

But extreme temperatures in the Arctic this winter — combined with heavy rain instead of snow — led to melting permafrost that gushed into the tunnel leading into the vault, according to a report in The Guardian, raising questions about whether the doomsday vault will survive a warming planet.

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(AP Photo/John McConnico)

"It was not in our plans to think that the permafrost would not be there and that it would experience extreme weather like that," Hege Njaa Aschim, an official in the Norweigan government, which controls the vault, told The Guardian. "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."

The water didn't travel all the way down into the vault, which is still safe, and officials could chip all the ice out the entryway.

Here's what the vault looks like inside — and why administrators are worried about the potentially devastating effects of climate change.

Svalbard is the northernmost place in the world that still has scheduled flights, according to The Crop Trust, the group in charge of the global seed-bank system.

Svalbard is the northernmost place in the world that still has scheduled flights, according to The Crop Trust, the group in charge of the global seed-bank system. play

Svalbard is the northernmost place in the world that still has scheduled flights, according to The Crop Trust, the group in charge of the global seed-bank system.

(Google Earth/Tech Insider)

Source: The Crop Trust



It's more than 400 feet above sea level, and there's little moisture in the air. But the Arctic is warming far faster than the rest of the world — faster than anyone expected.

It's more than 400 feet above sea level, and there's little moisture in the air. But the Arctic is warming far faster than the rest of the world — faster than anyone expected. play

It's more than 400 feet above sea level, and there's little moisture in the air. But the Arctic is warming far faster than the rest of the world — faster than anyone expected.

(Avatar_023/Shutterstock)

Source: The Crop Trust



The vault is buried in permafrost and is supposed to stay frozen for at least 200 years, even if the power were to go out. But officials are worried. "Now we are watching the seed vault 24 hours a day," Aschim told The Guardian.

The vault is buried in permafrost and is supposed to stay frozen for at least 200 years, even if the power were to go out. But officials are worried. "Now we are watching the seed vault 24 hours a day," Aschim told The Guardian. play

The vault is buried in permafrost and is supposed to stay frozen for at least 200 years, even if the power were to go out. But officials are worried. "Now we are watching the seed vault 24 hours a day," Aschim told The Guardian.

(AP Photo/David Keyton)

Source: Reuters



The vault has seeds from more than 60 institutions and almost every country in the world, collected from over 1,500 global gene banks that store samples of seeds from crops native to a region.

A technician at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center packs samples of wheat seeds. play

A technician at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center packs samples of wheat seeds.

(AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)

Source: The Crop Trust



The Svalbard vault is the central fail-safe for all those seed banks. If it fails, there's no backup.

The Svalbard vault is the central fail-safe for all those seed banks. If it fails, there's no backup. play

The Svalbard vault is the central fail-safe for all those seed banks. If it fails, there's no backup.

(Shutterstock / Incredible Arctic)

Source: The Crop Trust



Backups are sent to Svalbard in case a disaster ruins the samples at the home seed bank.

Technicians at CIMMYT sort samples of wild maize seeds, known as Teocintle, at the center in Texcoco, on the outskirts of Mexico City. play

Technicians at CIMMYT sort samples of wild maize seeds, known as Teocintle, at the center in Texcoco, on the outskirts of Mexico City.

(AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)

Source: The Crop Trust



That way, the genetic diversity of crops around the world is supposed to be kept safe.

Robert Zeigler, director general of the Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute, shows rice seeds destined for Svalbard. play

Robert Zeigler, director general of the Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute, shows rice seeds destined for Svalbard.

(REUTERS/Darren Whiteside)


Seed samples are sent to Svalbard in large boxes, which are scanned with X-rays after they get to the island to make sure nothing but seeds are inside.

Seed samples are sent to Svalbard in large boxes, which are scanned with X-rays after they get to the island to make sure nothing but seeds are inside. play

Seed samples are sent to Svalbard in large boxes, which are scanned with X-rays after they get to the island to make sure nothing but seeds are inside.

(REUTERS/Heiko Junge/NTB Scanpix)

Source: The Crop Trust



The rooftop and part of the facade of the building are a work of art with a light installation by Dyveke Sanne, since all public buildings in Norway are required by law to have art.

The rooftop and part of the facade of the building are a work of art with a light installation by Dyveke Sanne, since all public buildings in Norway are required by law to have art. play

The rooftop and part of the facade of the building are a work of art with a light installation by Dyveke Sanne, since all public buildings in Norway are required by law to have art.

(AP Photo/John McConnico)

Source: The Crop Trust



The vault is supposed to be unlocked only for deposits, which happen three or four times a year. But now workers are trying to waterproof the tunnel leading in and create ways to channel water and melting permafrost away from the structure.

The vault is supposed to be unlocked only for deposits, which happen three or four times a year. But now workers are trying to waterproof the tunnel leading in and create ways to channel water and melting permafrost away from the structure. play

The vault is supposed to be unlocked only for deposits, which happen three or four times a year. But now workers are trying to waterproof the tunnel leading in and create ways to channel water and melting permafrost away from the structure.

(REUTERS/Hakon Mosvold Larsen/ScanpixNorway/Pool)

Source: The Crop Trust



Here's the tunnel that became "like a glacier" when the meltwater froze, according to The Guardian. There are five doors with coded locks that anyone looking to get into the vault has to pass through.

Here's the tunnel that became "like a glacier" when the meltwater froze, according to The Guardian. There are five doors with coded locks that anyone looking to get into the vault has to pass through. play

Here's the tunnel that became "like a glacier" when the meltwater froze, according to The Guardian. There are five doors with coded locks that anyone looking to get into the vault has to pass through.

(AP Photo/John McConnico)

Source: The Crop Trust



The Crop Trust says that polar bears — which outnumber humans on the island — provide an extra "layer of security."

The warning sign says "Applies to all of Svalbard territory." play

The warning sign says "Applies to all of Svalbard territory."

(REUTERS/Bob Strong)

Source: The Crop Trust



The temperature inside is kept at -18 degrees Celsius: cold enough to keep the sealed seeds viable for thousands of years in some cases. But no one knows what would happen if the vault were to flood because of melting permafrost. It could be a disaster.

An interior door from the main chamber into one of the three vault rooms. play

An interior door from the main chamber into one of the three vault rooms.

(AP Photo/John McConnico)

Source: The Crop Trust



Generally, new seeds are moved to a trolley and rolled into the vault's main chamber.

Generally, new seeds are moved to a trolley and rolled into the vault's main chamber. play

Generally, new seeds are moved to a trolley and rolled into the vault's main chamber.

(AP Photo/John McConnico)

Source: The Crop Trust



So far, there are almost 1 million samples of food crops in the vault, collected since Svalbard opened in 2008. Each sample contains 500 seeds.

So far, there are almost 1 million samples of food crops in the vault, collected since Svalbard opened in 2008. Each sample contains 500 seeds. play

So far, there are almost 1 million samples of food crops in the vault, collected since Svalbard opened in 2008. Each sample contains 500 seeds.

(AP Photo/David Keyton)

Source: The Crop Trust



But there's enough space in the vault's three main rooms to store 4.5 million samples, which would be more than 2 billion seeds.

But there's enough space in the vault's three main rooms to store 4.5 million samples, which would be more than 2 billion seeds. play

But there's enough space in the vault's three main rooms to store 4.5 million samples, which would be more than 2 billion seeds.

(AP Photo/John McConnico)

Source: The Crop Trust



The seeds arrive sealed in foil and are kept inside sealed boxes to prevent any spoilage.

A seed sample is filled at a center in Texcoco. play

A seed sample is filled at a center in Texcoco.

(AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)

Source: The Crop Trust



In 2015, the ICARDA seed bank, which had been in Syria, withdrew samples from the vault — a first — so it could move and restore its seed bank, which had been damaged by war.

In 2015, the ICARDA seed bank, which had been in Syria, withdrew samples from the vault — a first — so it could move and restore its seed bank, which had been damaged by war. play

In 2015, the ICARDA seed bank, which had been in Syria, withdrew samples from the vault — a first — so it could move and restore its seed bank, which had been damaged by war.

(AP Photo/David Keyton)

Source: Business Insider



That showed that the vault could serve its function, but hopefully there will be no need for another withdrawal soon. "It illustrates why we built it," Cary Fowler told Business Insider's Lydia Ramsey. "Loss of that collection would be irreplaceable. ... I tell people it's a great story — a sad story — of the seed vault functioning as an insurance policy."

That showed that the vault could serve its function, but hopefully there will be no need for another withdrawal soon. "It illustrates why we built it," Cary Fowler told Business Insider's Lydia Ramsey. "Loss of that collection would be irreplaceable. ... I tell people it's a great story — a sad story — of the seed vault functioning as an insurance policy." play

That showed that the vault could serve its function, but hopefully there will be no need for another withdrawal soon. "It illustrates why we built it," Cary Fowler told Business Insider's Lydia Ramsey. "Loss of that collection would be irreplaceable. ... I tell people it's a great story — a sad story — of the seed vault functioning as an insurance policy."

(AP Photo/John McConnico)

Source: Business Insider



Now researchers are waiting to see if the Arctic will be hit by extreme heat again next winter, melting permafrost again.

Now researchers are waiting to see if the Arctic will be hit by extreme heat again next winter, melting permafrost again. play

Now researchers are waiting to see if the Arctic will be hit by extreme heat again next winter, melting permafrost again.

(Bjoertvedt/Wikimedia)


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