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The ice near the North Pole melted, flooding the vault.

May 22, 2017

Climate change, it appears, can get to us everywhere. Even in our most secure locations. In a disheartening bit of news, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault – a secure facility that holds duplicates of plant seeds from around the world as a last resort in case a global catastrophe – has itself started to succumb to the effects of climate change.

The vault, which is located on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen only about 800 miles from the North Pole, recently flooded after abnormally warm winter temperatures caused meltwater to breach the entrance tunnel, according to The Guardian. The location for the vault was specifically chosen because the area’s deep permafrost that surrounds the bunker was believed to create “failsafe” protection against “the challenge of natural or man-made disasters.” Now, the Norwegian government, who built and owns the vault, is questioning if that is the case. “It was not in our plans to think that the permafrost would not be there and that it would experience extreme weather like that,” Norwegian official Hege Njaa Aschim 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.”

Luckily, no seeds were harmed during the incident – the more than 930,000 different seed varieties covering thousands of types of crops are safe – and the ice has since been removed, but obviously this natural disaster has been an eye-opener for a facility specifically built as a final failsafe in case of natural disasters. Beyond simply protecting our food supply, the vault is also intended to operate without humans if need be. That’s currently not the case. “We are watching the seed vault 24 hours a day,” Aschim said.

In a statement, the Norwegian government wanted “to assure seed depositors and the public that the seeds are completely safe and no damage has been done to the facility,” but they have decided that improvements need to be made, writing, “After 9 years of operation, Svalbard Global Seed Vault is facing technical improvements in connection with water intrusion in the outer part of the access tunnel because the permafrost has not established itself as projected.”

But concerns still persist. “The question is whether this is just happening now, or will it escalate?” Aschim asked. Meanwhile, Asmund Asdal from the Nordic Genetic Resource Centre, operator of the vault, provided a somewhat ominous take: “This is supposed to last for eternity.”