Update 5/22: Recently, media reports emerged of water leaking into the entryway of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a facility that stores backup seeds for other seed banks all over the world. The facility is designed to be a backup for the backups. In an e-mail to Popular Science, Hege Njaa Aschim—communications director of the Norwegian Government-led organization Statsbygg, confirmed that the leaks happened last fall, during a time of high temperatures and unusual rainfall in the Svalbard area.
“This fall—October 2016—we had extreme weather in Svalbard with high temperatures and a lot of rain—very unusual. This caused water intrusion into the tunnel leading to the seed vault. The seeds and the vault was never at risk. This was no flooding, but more water than we like. So we are doing measures to improve and secure the entrance and tunnel,” Aschim said.
Aschim added that this year, no water has leaked into the entryway. In October, the water made it about 15 meters into the 100 meter tunnel and then stopped, freezing solid.
“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,” [seed bank co-founder Cary] Fowler says. In other words, any water that floods into the tunnel has to make it 100 meters downhill, then back uphill, then overwhelm the pumping systems, and then manage not to freeze at well-below-freezing temperatures. Otherwise, there’s no way liquid is getting into the seed bank—so the seeds are probably safe.
That doesn’t mean that water getting into the tunnel and freezing isn’t alarming. This is Svalbard: land of snow, ice, and polar bears. Meltwater is still worrying, even if it isn’t an immediate panic-inducing threat. That’s why, as The Guardian reports, the Norwegian government (which operates the facility) is taking action.
“There are not a lot of seed vaults in the middle of mountains in Svalbard, so it’s really important. They need to study where the water is coming in and the amounts to figure out what the situation is,” Fowler says. The groups that operate the seed vault have been looking into the issue for years now, and it appears that they are moving forward with plans to waterproof the tunnel, preventing ice from building up on the floor, and keeping that seasonal influx of water from getting in.
“At the end of the day we have to realize that in a sense, everything is relative with this initiative,” Fowler says. “This whole planet is warming, and that includes Svalbard.”
It’s going to be OK. Mostly.