Photograph by Jonas Bendiksen, Magnum Photos
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The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a doomsday shelter for the food supply, is tucked into a remote mountain on Spitsbergen, in Norway's Svalbard archipelago.

Photograph by Jonas Bendiksen, Magnum Photos

‘Doomsday Vault’ Protects Earth’s Food Supply—Here’s How

Designed to be insulated from a cataclysm, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault sprang a leak last year. Now it’s being retooled for climate change.

The windshield wipers on the SUV work overtime as Åsmund Asdal zigzags up the fog-covered mountain to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.

“The main reason we have civilization is that humans developed ways of using seeds,” says Asdal, the operations and management coordinator of the facility, as he peers over the steering wheel through the haze.

Today the wide range of plants that humans have relied on throughout history is threatened by the clones of modern industrial agriculture, new diseases, and climate change. The storage vault—in Norway’s Svalbard archipelago 800 miles above the Arctic Circle—was designed to ensure that nature’s vast array of genes is not lost.

At the entrance tunnel to the warehouse, the wind is drowned out by the roar of a cooling system that deepens the freeze in the space to minus 18°C (0°F)—a temperature ensuring that seed samples stay viable in the event of a global cataclysm.

“People call the vault a Noah’s Ark for seeds,” says Asdal, a biologist and agronomist. “I think that's quite a good comparison.” But now, on its tenth anniversary, the initiative is confronting one of the very forces it is meant to protect against: global warming.

A small drainage ditch in front of the entrance diverts rainwater streaming down the cold rock of the mountain. Twenty years ago, this trench might have been sufficient. Svalbard was thought to be the perfect place to preserve and store seeds because it is a polar desert—cold and dry, with little snow and not much rain.

In a cruelly ironic twist for what is meant to be a doomsday backup for civilization, climate change is working faster here than in many other places around the world. This has meant warming temperatures, avalanches, rain and, most damaging for the seed vault, melting permafrost. As the globe warms, this small ditch is not enough to protect the warehouse from surface runoff.

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A worker carries newly arrived boxes containing seeds from Japan and the United States. National seed banks provide samples to the Svalbard vault, a global backup for protecting the genotypes of agricultural staples such as wheat.

An Ark for Food

Currently, the facility holds around 930,000 seed samples representing 5,000 plant species. They’re stored behind heavy doors covered in a layer of glittering ice, in three big rooms deep inside the mountain. The vault is said to be an ideal location for long-term storage, partly because permafrost offers cost-effective freezing–and it would take a long time to thaw in case of a power outage.

The vault was founded as a safety net for national seed banks, which donated the samples. It does not store the seeds of endangered plants; it protects the genetic material of the foods we see on our plates every day, as well as the wild relatives of these plants.

“We keep plants here that are important for the production of food,” Asdal says. Those staples include around 140,000 different samples of wheat varieties; 150,000 samples of rice; 70,000 samples of barley; and between 10,000 and 20,000 samples each of different kinds of potatoes, peas, sorghum, and many other crops.

Aside from an apocalypse—nuclear war, asteroids—there are multiple threats facing farming today. Industrial agriculture relies on monocrops of clones, so one pest could potentially wipe out an entire susceptible variety. (Read about the threat to bananas.) Climate change means one drought could wipe out a non-resilient strain.

As an example, farmers used to grow 1,700 different kinds of rice in Taiwan, says Ann Tutwiler, director of Bioversity International, a conservation organization focusing on biodiversity. Today, only three varieties make up 82 percent of the island’s farmed area.

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Behind ice-covered doors, the facility holds around 930,000 seed samples representing 5,000 plant species.

Diversifying Our Food

“When you have monocultures or plant a very narrow range of varieties, they're very susceptible to pests and diseases and can easily be quite vulnerable to different climate change threats,” says Tutwiler. “People diversify their financial portfolios, so why aren't we diversifying our agriculture system?”

Historically, farmers did just that. They relied on an assortment of varieties. If one kind of wheat succumbed to an infestation or a lack of water, a slightly different neighbor might thrive.

As we drive back from the vault to town, Asdal describes growing up on the family farm in southern Norway—and the dramatic shift to modern farming.

“Suddenly in 1975,” he says, “all the fields were covered with grass, feed for the animals, and the only animals left on the farm were cows producing milk. This is actually the story of agriculture. It very quickly went from a diverse, self-sufficient farming system to an industrial way of producing food. Each farm now produces one crop, one very specialized product.”

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The vault is carved into Arctic permafrost, which has an ideal temperature for preserving the seed samples.

Crop Trust, which partnered with the Norwegian government to build the vault a decade ago, says it can safeguard the food supply. With seed banks, scientists and plant breeders can continue to use the material to engineer crops with qualities that make them more resilient. “Genotypes would be lost if gene banks did not secure them,” says Asdal. (Learn about the revival of one ancient grain.)

Springing a Leak

This protection plan was threatened in May 2017, when the entrance tunnel to the vault sprang a leak. Water and then ice rapidly covered the floor of the 1,400-foot passage into the mountain, though the storage chambers themselves were never at risk.

“It was a very extraordinary amount of rain that came down in a very short period of time,” says Synnove Sandberg, director of construction for Statsbygg, the Norwegian government agency responsible for state-owned land and buildings, including the vault.

The Norwegian government subsequently spent almost $4.7 million waterproofing the tunnel, removing heat sources that could melt permafrost, and digging drainage channels in the mountainside above the vault. The country is expected to commit an additional $6.3 million for another round of upgrades to better insulate the vault from the changing environment.

“It's warmer now than it has ever been, and we will be prepared for an even warmer climate and even more water and rain,” says Hege Aschim, Statsbygg communications director.

The torrential downpours have also unleashed avalanches. In mid-December a violent storm hit the region, and residents were ordered to evacuate homes in avalanche-threatened areas of Longyearbyen—the archipelago’s main city, located near the vault. The precaution was taken after other avalanches struck the area, including one in December 2015 that killed a child and an elementary school teacher and seriously injured dozens of others.

“All the houses were just moved—10, 20, 30 meters—closer to ours. We almost had houses on our front staircase,” says Espen Rotevatn, a teacher and city council member, describing how the homes of his neighbors were picked up and blasted across the street when the wall of snow hit. Like all the buildings in town, the homes were built on wooden piles sunk into permafrost—and the piles are now rotting because the permafrost is melting.

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The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is located in Longyearbyen, the world's northernmost settlement. It was chosen for its isolated, Arctic location, but accelerated melting and extreme weather have wrought unforeseen challenges.

But even with these recent disasters, not everyone in the archipelago is convinced that climate change is happening here. “This is extremely absurd since we're maybe at the one place in the world where you can see it with your own eyes,” says Rotevatn.

In the Bull’s Eye

After Asdal drops me off in rainy downtown Longyearbyen, I face the 1.5-mile trek to my bunkhouse, which has a view of the glacier-fed torrent that flows down a gully through the city. Worried about polar bears and soaked by rain, I try to hitchhike. After a few trucks pass by, Kristin Mork pulls up. Unlike most residents of this coal-mining station turned research and tourism hub, she grew up here. Her late father was mayor in the 1980s, and he’s buried in the local cemetery, which was miraculously spared when the biggest landslide in 40 years hit the town last summer.

How often do people talk about climate change on Svalbard? “All the time,” says Mork. Although residents are divided on how dangerous it could be, most agree that it has worsened, she says, especially after the avalanches. And they're responding. “The city is kind of slowly moving,” she says, referring to plans to build out in the middle of the valley, away from the steep slopes.

Changes to the climate are well documented. The archipelago experiences polar amplification, a phenomenon that causes the Arctic and Antarctic to warm faster than the rest of the planet. “Svalbard is the bull's eye for where Arctic warming is taking place. It's predicted to have the most warming of any place on the planet in the next 100 years,” says William D’Andrea, a biologist and paleoclimatologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

He and many of his colleagues see peril for the town—and the seed vault. “This area was described as a polar desert with only 250 millimeters [almost 10 inches] of precipitation a year,” says Jostein Bakke, who’s with Norway’s Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research at the University of Bergen. Last winter, he noted, 60 millimeters [almost 2.5 inches] fell in just one day.

“It's a very dramatic shift,” says Bakke, who has been studying climate in the island chain for almost 20 years.

Climate-Proofing the Future

Regardless of what will happen in Longyearbyen, the storage facility will stay. “There’s no question of changing its place,” says Statsbygg’s Aschim. “The seeds are safe inside the mountain—it’s the entrance that is causing the problems.”

By spring 2019, Statsbygg projects that the climate-proofing upgrades to the tunnel leading to the vault will be complete. The agency will convert the current rock tunnel into a concrete passageway, install cooling pipes on its exterior and cover it with frozen mats, and then replace the soil. “It was built with the idea that the permafrost should reestablish and take care of the tunnel, but it did not,” says Aschim. “So we will help nature.”

For his part, Asdal sees the work of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault continuing—also with the aim of helping nature. “We do not know what the future will bring, but at least this is a kind of insurance for keeping the genes that we will need when the climate changes, when we need more food,” he says. “At least this is a measure that will make the future easier for us.”

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This article originated as part of a sponsored Future of Food series.