The ‘doomsday vault’ may already have met its match in global warming

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The Worldwide Roast Vault in Svalbard, Norway.

Image: David Keyton/AP/REX/Shutterstock

The Global Roast Vault is sometimes known as the doomsday vault, because it’s meant to store the Earth’s genetic bounty in the event of a natural or human-made disaster that wipes out crucial crops necessary to sustain animal and human populations.

Having a capacity to store 4.5 million harvest varieties and 2.5 billion seeds, it is billed as the world’s largest collection of crop diversity.

While the designers of the vault appear to have accepted the chances of atomic wars and global pandemics into consideration, they could have given a little thought to one other serious threat: global warming.

The vault was intentionally constructed far away from major public facilities, also has been built 400 ft into a icy mountainside in Spitsbergen, Norway. The seed collection, currently numbering between 800,000 and 900,000 samples, is kept at a cold temperature of minus-18 degrees Celsius, or about 0 degrees Fahrenheit.

Entrance to the Worldwide Seed Vault in Spitsbergen, Norway.

Image: Heiko Junge/Epa/REX/Shutterstock

The frozen soil surrounding the vault, called permafrost, however, could prove to be the vault’s undoing as sea and air temperatures rise due to human-caused worldwide warming. As demonstrated by a report Friday in that the Guardian, a collection of highly unusual wintertime heat waves during the 2016-17 winter resulted in enough thawing of the permafrost that water rushed to the vault’s entrance.

Once in the entrance, the water warms to ice temperatures cooled , prior to any water can penetrate the vault itself. On the other hand, the incident may have been enough to demonstrate that rapid Arctic climate change the region is warming at twice the rate of any other area around Earth could upend key assumptions used to create the vault, which started with much fanfare just seven years back.

Air temperature departures from average during the Arctic winter of 2016-17.

Image: nsidc

“It was not in our strategies to think the permafrost would not be there and it might experience extreme weather like this,” Hege Njaa Aschim, from the Norwegian government, which owns the vault, told the Guardian.

“Lots of water moved to the beginning of the tube and then it froze to ice, so it was like a glacier when you went in,” she told the paper.

The seed bank has been supposed to function on autopilot, but , workers are seeing it around the clock, Aschim told the united kingdom newspaper. “We must see what we can do in order to minimize each of the risks and be certain the seed bank may take care of itself”

In remarks to Mashable about Monday, Aschim said any press reports about “flood” from the vault were overblown.

“It was not flood but a lot of rainwater and it is unusual – we have not experienced that before,” she said in an emailaddress. But she added, “The seeds and also the vault [were ] never at risk.”

High temperatures and heavy rainfall in October 2016 caused “water intrusion” to the tube leading to the seed vault, she noted. Even though the seeds were untouched, she stated the Norwegian government, which functions the vault, is still consulting with scientists and scientists and taking other precautions to make sure “we do the perfect situation to protect the tube as well as the vault later on”

“We will not take any chances,” Aschim added.

Vault operators are making building improvements to lessen any water intrusion at the entrance to the vault. Some of those fixes incorporate the elimination of an energy transformer to simply take away a heat source from the entranceway, in addition to digging drainage ditches nearby.

Operators printed press announcements over the weekend setting out the renovations in detail, making clear they concern the entranceway to the vault instead of the area where the seeds are stored.

There’s no question that the climate is warming faster during the Svalbard Archipelago than has been anticipated just a few decades ago.

Along with the melting of permafrost is not just placing the seed vault’s original design at risk. It’s also threatening to boost the pace at which greenhouse gases are pouring into the atmosphere, since as the frozen land melts, bacteria inside it break down organic matter and also emit methane, carbon dioxide along with other planet-warming pollutants. In addition, permafrost melt is habitable buildings, roadways, and other infrastructure in the Arctic, from Alaska to Siberia and beyond.

The last year has been the warmest on record from the Arctic, along with sea ice, that generally surrounds the Svalbard Archipelago, stayed north of the region through much of January, that is unusually late, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado.

A string of warm air rhythms in the North Atlantic drifted across Svalbard, including the place of the seed vault, shoving air temperatures well above the freezing point. Connected to significant storm systemsthat these waves of above average air temperatures then sailed across much of the high Arctic, at times attracting air temperatures near or just above freezing at the geographical North Pole as well.

Map of air temperature death from avg. Across the Arctic in Dec. 2016, with a arrow pointing to Svalbard.

Image: nsidc

This pattern was partly due to a deficiency of sea ice round the Barents and Kara Seas, which provided a supply of moisture and hot air for those storms to tap into and then draw to the central Arctic.

By way of example, on Dec. 21, 2016, the elevated temperature in Svalbard was 4.8 degrees Celsius, or 40.6 degrees Fahrenheit. This was almost 19 degrees Celsius above average for this date. Similarly, on Feb. 6, 2017, Svalbard found a high fever of 5.9 degrees Celsius, or 42.6 degrees Fahrenheit, well above the average for this date, that was just minus-16.1 degrees Celsius, or 3 levels above zero Fahrenheit.

Ryan Maue, a meteorologist at WeatherBell Analytics in the U.S., tweeted his own suspicion concerning the Guardian narrative’s precision on Friday, stating that if accurate, the vault has to be relocated. But, winter conditions are changeable there because climate systems move through. The region where the vault is located is not in a place permanently surrounded by sea ice, for example.

These unexpectedly light days this winter were not isolated examples, either, as Svalbard saw more rain on snow events than ordinary, and a lot of other temperature spikes that threatened to break records.

The question today is whether there’s anything that the seed vault operators are able to do in order in order to bolster the centre’s defenses against climate change and climate issues, which will only grow worse in the next few years.

1 recent study that analyzed Svalbard climate trends during the last century discovered significant winter heating has happened in the past few decades, and it estimated a normal winter in the year 2100 will be approximately 10 degrees Celsius milder than people today.

This story was upgraded with comment from the Norwegian authorities on May 22, 2017.

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