The Arctic Bunker That Protects The World’s Seeds Is Thawing

This “failsafe” against climate apocalypse may be its victim.

The Arctic Bunker That Protects The World’s Seeds Is Thawing
[Photo: Flickr user Christopher Michel]

According to a devastating report in The Guardian today, the Global Seed Vault–a repository of over 880,000 samples of the world’s seeds on the Norwegian island of Svalbard far north of the Arctic Circle–was flooded with meltwater less than a decade after it was built. The vault is designed to endure, frozen at -18C, forever, providing a kind of back-up copy of the world’s ecological diversity in the case of disaster. But after the hottest year on record that was 2016, Svalbard’s snow and permafrost melted, spilling water into the vault’s tunnel.


[Photo: US Department of Agriculture/Flickr]
Luckily, the water froze to ice before it breeched into the seed storage area, The Guardian writes after the Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet first reported the flooding this week. But staff is now watching the vault 24/7, uncertain of its future efficacy in the face of a warming world.

The Seed Vault opened in 2008, funded by the Norwegian government and managed by the nonprofit Crop Trust. It was designed to be “a fail-safe seed storage facility, built to stand the test of time–and the challenge of natural or man-made disasters.”

Embedded in the permafrost of the Arctic, it’s essentially meant to operate like a giant freezer that never requires power to cool–a beacon of self-sustaining resilient architecture. Whether it was nuclear attacks or earthquakes that threatened humanity and its biodiversity, the vault would live on as a repository of seeds that could be replanted by future generations. In 2015, the vault experienced its first withdrawal, far earlier than its managers expected, after the Syrian civil war destroyed seeds at a local repository.

[Photo: Arterra/UIG/Getty Images]
In an ironic twist, the Arctic is affected by the warming climate more drastically than the rest of the world. It’s melting. And as a result, the Seed Vault is in danger. In this sense, the story is not only depressing, it’s an early litmus test for the rest of the world. Can resilience–the movement to make our cities, infrastructure, and architecture stronger in the face of the changing planet–really stand up to the immeasurably large, complex environmental changes gripping our earth? At the moment, it’s hard to conclude anything but “probably not.”

Co.Design has reached out to the Crop Trust for more detail, and will update this post with more information when it becomes available.


About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started, a simple way to give back every day.