Cary Fowler at Svalbard Global Seed Vault. CREDIT: Kalle Koponen/HS

What is Doomsday Vault? Will Preserved Seeds Face Destruction in Arctic

In an eye-opener to those who had not anticipated any threat to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a giant seed bank 130 meters deep inside the frozen mountain in the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, the structure proved futile 10 years after when ice started melting due to global warming.

The seed vault, built in 2008, has one million packets of seeds of most food crops known so far to the mankind to ensure humans do not face food scarcity in case of a man-made or natural disaster. The location was perfect inside a mountain in the Arctic Circle. The vault was covered with permafrost to ensure that the seeds were kept at a temperature of -18 degree Celsius.

But global warming within ten years had turned around the expectations as Arctic ice is melting, flooding the vault through permafrost and endangering the humankind’s future hope for using these seeds to rejuvenate food production.

Now that the insurance against any apocalypse had been nullified, the Norwegian government which had fully funded the vault and overseeing its safety, is shocked at the impact of global warming or unforeseen climate change that can reverse the future plans.

Hege Njaa Aschim, an official of the Norwegian government, said: “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. It was supposed to (function) without the help of humans, but now we are watching the seed vault 24 hours a day.

Seed vault looking out. CREDIT: Mari Tefre/Global Crop Diversity Trust

Seed vault looking out.CREDIT: Mari Tefre/Global Crop Diversity Trust

known as the “Doomsday Vault”, it has served not as a protector in case of a catastrophe but as a warning that bigger trouble due to global warming is in store for the mankind.

Opened on 26th February, 2008, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault received initial shipments of 100 million seeds that originated in over 100 countries, including India.

With the deposits ranging from unique varieties of food staples such as maize, rice, wheat, cowpea, and sorghum to European and South American varieties of eggplant, lettuce, barley, and potato, the first deposits represent the most comprehensive collection of food crop seeds in the world.

Prime Minister of Norway, Jens Stoltenberg, unlocked the vault at a ceremony and, together with the African Nobel Peace Prize-winning environmentalist Wangari Maathai, who placed the first seeds in the vault.

Seed vault artwork. CREDIT: Mari Tefre/Global Crop Diversity Trust

Seed vault artwork. CREDIT: Mari Tefre/Global Crop Diversity Trust

Built near the village of Longyearbyen on the island of Spitsbergen, the vault contained seeds weighing 10 tonnes, filling 676 boxes. Even in the worst-case scenarios of global warming, the vault rooms were built to remain naturally frozen for up to 200 years.

Its engineering marvel allows it to stay cool with only a single 10-kilowatt compressor, which is powered by locally generated electricity. The vault has three highly secure rooms sitting at the end of a 125-metre tunnel blasted out of a mountain on Norway’s Svalbard archipelago.

The seeds, stored at minus 18 degrees Celsius (minus 0.4 degrees Fahrenheit), were sealed in specially-designed four-ply foil packages, kept in boxes and stored on shelves inside the vault. Each vault is surrounded by frozen arctic permafrost, protecting seeds from power failure.

The low temperature at minus 20 degrees Celsius ensure some seeds viable for a millennium or more. For example, barley can last 2000 years, wheat 1700 years, and sorghum almost 20,000 years.

To enter the vault, one has to pass through four locked doors: the heavy steel entrance doors, a second door approximately 115 metres down the tunnel and finally the two keyed air-locked doors. Keys are coded to allow access to different levels of the facility. Not all keys will unlock all doors. Motion detectors are set up around the site and seed boxes are scanned before placing in the vault.

A work of art at the entrance makes the vault visible for miles around. Artist Dyveke Sanne and KORO, the Norwegian government palaces agency,  have worked together to fill the roof and vault entrance with highly reflective steel, mirrors, and prisms.

The vault also acts as a beacon, reflecting polar light in the summer months, while in the winter, a network of 200 fibre-optic cables will give it a muted greenish-turquoise and white light.

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