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Known popularly in the press as 'the Doomsday Vault’, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault has become an icon of sorts: the ark in the Arctic in which rests the hope of humanity. The claims of online newsfeeds a fortnight ago that the permafrost had melted made the ark image altogether more alarming: the water’s rising. This ark was supposed to outlast us; function even if no one was there to check on it.

I have written about the Svalbard Global Seed Vault (SGSV) before. It is administered by NordGen, one of the project partners of the Diversity theme of Heritage Futures. When Rodney and I visited the SGSV in October 2015, we took a taxi to it from our hotel in the town of Longyearbyen: just a few minutes drive, directly above Svalbard’s airport. It’s an uphill climb along the road, zigging along the side of the Platåberget mountain. And from the small carpark outside the entrance to the vault, a short walk through its thick steel doors, followed by a long downhill stretch of some distance through an entrance tunnel, into the mountain – into the permafrost – through two more sets of serious doors, into a large cavern, into which the actual vaults are built, and through another set of doors, into the -18 degree room where the seeds are shelved.
Svalbard Global Seed Vault


It was in the entrance tunnel that the melt- and rainwater froze “like a glacier,” the Guardian quoted Hege Njaa Aschim, Communications Manager of Statsbygg (effectively the property management arm of the Norwegian government, who manage the day-to-day safety and maintenance of the SGSV) as saying. The news reports blamed “record-breaking temperatures” and indeed 2016, hot on the heels of 2015, were alarmingly warm – anomalies themselves, but very much situated in what seems to be an inexorable diminishing of Arctic ice. “The Arctic gives us early warning of climate change, and the region plays an important role in the global climate system,” says the Norwegian Polar Institute’s Arctic website. In July 2016, the Guardian interviewed climate scientist Professor Jennifer Francis of Rutgers University on the findings of her work on Arctic sea ice: “These temperature anomalies are not unprecedented but this is certainly extraordinary. We are seeing a continual decline in ice. It it likely to be a hiccup but it puts us in bad starting position for next year.”


At the time of our visit, Åsmund Asdal, coordinator of the vault, told us how preparations for the vault had estimated the longevity of Svalbard’s suitability as a store for the seeds: the permafrost would keep the seeds frozen even if the machinery failed. The machinery didn’t fail this time. Tim Fischer, Deputy Director of the Crop Trust which co-founded and co-funds the SGSV, was reported by Grain Central, the Australian industry daily, as saying “This is by no means an emergency – there has been zero damage to any seed packets”. The vaults are maintained at -18 whatever the weather, and already have flood pumps. By Saturday, spooked perhaps by the global alarm the earlier press release engendered, the joint statement on the affair read as follows:

The Royal Ministry of Agriculture and Food in Norway, the Crop Trust, and NordGen would like to assure seed depositors and the public that the seeds are completely safe and no damage has been done to the facility. The Royal Ministry of Agriculture and Food and Statsbygg, Norway, is taking appropriate measures to ensure the protection of the Seed Vault and improve the construction to prevent future incidents. Globally, the Seed Vault is, and will continue to be, the safest backup of crop diversity.



“This is by no means an emergency – there has been zero damage to any seed packets” – Tim Fischer, Deputy Director of The Crop Trust


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The tunnel at SGSV
Plans to provide deeper channels for water were quickly expounded. So quick, one might suppose they were already in the pipeline. This hiccup, after all, wasn’t entirely a surprise.


In other news from May, the seed vault had seen new deposits from Canada and New Zealand; while in February, there was much celebration as ICARDA deposited seeds once again. February also saw the first deposition of seeds from the United Kingdom. The James Hutton Institute – GBR251 on the labels – deposited two boxes containing 111 taxa of Solanum, the genus of angiosperms that includes potatoes and tomatoes.


So life goes on at SGSV: seeds move, mostly in, but occasionally out. Ex situ preservation stands up to the test of flow. It’s the in situ Arctic ice that’s on the wain.


When we visited the SGSV, Åsmund told us that the ‘Doomsday’ flavour of the newspaper reports was regrettable sensationalism, but perhaps served some sort of purpose in highlighting the work of the facility. After all, its very ark-like architecture, its top-of-the-world position, rather reinforces a symbolic significance. We asked him when Doomsday might be. What kind of futures does the SGSV represent? “Doomsday is never coming,” he said. “But it’s a hundred, two hundred years ahead.” That’s the rolling lifetime of the frozen seeds, but maybe not the now of the permafrost. We need to talk about futures.