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Earth Science

Arctic Stronghold of World's Seeds Flooded After Permafrost Melts (theguardian.com) 178

An anonymous reader quotes a report from The Guardian: It was designed as an impregnable deep-freeze to protect the world's most precious seeds from any global disaster and ensure humanity's food supply forever. But the Global Seed Vault, buried in a mountain deep inside the Arctic circle, has been breached after global warming produced extraordinary temperatures over the winter, sending meltwater gushing into the entrance tunnel. The vault is on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen and contains almost a million packets of seeds, each a variety of an important food crop. When it was opened in 2008, the deep permafrost through which the vault was sunk was expected to provide "failsafe" protection against "the challenge of natural or man-made disasters". But soaring temperatures in the Arctic at the end of the world's hottest ever recorded year led to melting and heavy rain, when light snow should have been falling. "It was not in our plans to think that the permafrost would not be there and that it would experience extreme weather like that," said Hege Njaa Aschim, from the Norwegian government, which owns the vault. "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," she told the Guardian. Fortunately, the meltwater did not reach the vault itself, the ice has been hacked out, and the precious seeds remain safe for now at the required storage temperature of -18C. But the breach has questioned the ability of the vault to survive as a lifeline for humanity if catastrophe strikes.
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Arctic Stronghold of World's Seeds Flooded After Permafrost Melts

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  • by seven of five ( 578993 ) on Saturday May 20, 2017 @08:08AM (#54454433)
    And so the vault wasn't flooded.
  • by CptLoRes ( 4510239 ) on Saturday May 20, 2017 @08:15AM (#54454461)
    1. The melting of permafrost ice caused by global warming. 2. The bad design or placement of The Global Seed vault. 3. The blatantly wrong click-bate title of this article..
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org]

    At least that's not threatened by permafrost melt.

  • by w3woody ( 44457 ) on Saturday May 20, 2017 @08:53AM (#54454621) Homepage

    The seed vault was supposedly designed to last 1000 years without human intervention. If you believe in AGW, or even if you don't, it is inevitable that over 1000 years we would see a substantial change in climate. That means the possibility that the Nordic location of the seed vault may be considerably warmer than it currently is.

    That is, if you're planning for the vault to last 1000 years without human intervention, then the 7C variation that flooded the entrance to the vault should be considered nearly inevitable during that 1000 year span. Hell, I'd plan for at least a 20C swing; we've seen similar swings in the past few thousand years, and it's not entirely implausible we would see more variation in the future.

    Further, if I were the researchers who man the vault, I would make plans to periodically open various seed samples (perhaps by requiring any seed cultivars to be supplied in multiple packets, so one can be occasionally sacrificed for testing). This way you can evaluate if the seeds we are storing are still viable, or if something happened to them which may question the viability of the entire sample--and if that happens, hopefully we'll have time to store a new sample in its stead. (The FAQ [croptrust.org] suggests this is not happening: "The boxes with seeds will be sealed by the depositors and will not be distributed to or given access to by anyone other than the depositors.")

  • Surely there's an abandoned working somewhere inside a mountain, well above sea level, that would make a better location for the repository than a tunnel in permafrost.

  • So a vault designed with protecting something through a catastrophe didn't consider the possibly of melt water or lots of rain? Was the director of design Donald Trump?
  • by boulat ( 216724 ) on Saturday May 20, 2017 @09:34AM (#54454785)

    Just looking at the pictures ( https://www.theguardian.com/en... [theguardian.com] ) of the vault itself its apparent these people have no idea what they are doing:

    1. The plastic boxes are not waterproof in the event of a flood the entire supply will be compromised
    2. There are no cages in place to keep the plastic containers from falling off the shelves in the event of an earthquake or flood, and compromising their integrity
    3. The ground floor is permafrost - not actual concrete or any sort of reinforced material, so any lifeform that is capable of digging can penetrate this 'vault'

    • You were doing so well at pointing the finger until point three.

      The ground floor is permafrost - not actual concrete or any sort of reinforced material, so any lifeform that is capable of digging can penetrate this 'vault'

      Any "life-form" that decides it wants to dig through a lot of ice.
      Before pointing at incompetence it may have been a good idea to consider what the word permafrost means and to lay off on the science fiction. Sure, it happens a lot in movies and novels that some alien thing tunnels throug

      • Nope he's doing fine. Maybe you are the one in need of education. There are animals that burrow in permafrost, look it up.

        • by Anonymous Coward

          There are animals that burrow in permafrost, look it up.

          So I did, utterly fascinating.

          How do animals adapt to permafrost? What are some examples? [quora.com]

          Life, uh, finds a way.

          • by dbIII ( 701233 )
            From the article:

            Because it’s really difficult to dig a new burrow in the frozen ground, arctic foxes use the same den year after year

        • Sobered up yet? Well here's the line again.

          tunnels through a lot of ice

          Try again and see what you missed last time. Clue - it's a three letter word that suggest magnitude instead of whether something happens at all or not at all. Maybe consider how deep this vault is and how much permafrost a fox or whatever would have to dig through.
          There's a bit of a difference between digging one metre through frozen soil and ten.

          • You are the one who needs to sober up, the place has tunnels to it. How convenient for rodents who burrow in permafrost and moreover whose waste and corpses melt even more than what they themselves dig.

            • by dbIII ( 701233 )
              Through ten metres of frozen ground? Not happening. If it did we wouldn't be finding those shallow frozen mammoths then would we - something would have dug down to eat them.
              What's with the "the one in need of education" insults from idiots these days? Is it some form of projection?
              • The access tunnels go through tens of meters of ground, the rodents have a head start.

                You spew without researching facts, that is the need for education.

      • Sorry, but I thought the whole reason this article was written was because the "permafrost" melted.

        So I guess the question is, if permafrost melts is it still called permafrost? Is it like ice-9 in your imaginings? Forever frozen, even when its warm?

        Also, you have got to love the hubris of calling something "perma-anything." Like with people who don't want tattoos because "They are permanent!" No, they are not. You are not. Just like permafrost. Thinking so reveals a deep disconnect with reality. A

    • by Kjella ( 173770 )

      "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 thereâ(TM)s another barrier [the ice] for entry into the seed vault," 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."

      As for volcanic activity, the area is geographically dead [nasa.gov]. We know the areas with volcanic activity and tectonic plates meet and that won't significantly change in the next 1000 years.

    • I'm a bit surprised that they didn't design the facility to be able to automatically and passively deal with flooding. This would make point #1 (flooding) a non-issue.

    • by bongey ( 974911 )

      Worse, it is basically right next to the ocean. That is as bad as the stupid people that build houses on the beach and then are surprised when it falls into the ocean.

    • To refute your points:

      1. If the facility is flooded, the seeds will go above -18C which will ruin them.

      2. They selected a geologically stable area.

      3. While a few things may dig in permafrost, nothing is going to suddenly decide, "I'm going to dig a few hundred meters through permafrost because, well, I sense something is in that general direction." Also, permafrost is almost as hard as concrete, so not much would be gained by pouring it - and pouring concrete in -17C isn't a trivial task.

      • by Xest ( 935314 )

        "1. If the facility is flooded, the seeds will go above -18C which will ruin them."

        This is very species specific. For example, I've been able to germinate with around 90% accuracy seeds of Lithops and certain species of Cactus that were over 20 years old, but I'm not disagreeing with you in general though that a good proportion will more quickly lose viability, though it really depends on how quickly those species do lose viability - if most seeds are viable for a year (which is fairly common, given the pre

  • Turns out this was mostly over-sensationalizing from a badly translated story:

    https://townhall.com/tipsheet/... [townhall.com]

    Ferret
  • The folks who planned this should be given the Darwin award. May be Nobel too. They are worthy of both.
  • So this appears to the result of climate change, but big oil would like to tell you otherwise through a number of its 'anti-climate change' shell companies. At the same time the government is being asked to reduce regulation, for industries who are not socially responsible. In the case of the US government this is pretty blatant, along with ignoring the commitments it has signed up to.

    Can the government be legally held accountable for actually reducing its ability to live up to its environmental obligations

    • Oil doesn't matter. Seeds don't matter. In 100 years we'll have genetics completely computerized (probably sooner) so you can custom design organisms. You'll only see these things in a zoo, or a virtual zoo. What care do we have for moving back from the ocean when robots will do all the work as we sit in our virtual reality pods, if not uploaded fully?

      We can less predict life's advancements in 100 years than 1900 could today's. It would be silly for them to do stuff which slowed their advancement in fa

  • The obvious mistake was not sending the seeds off to a planet that is 75-light-years away, where aliens and corporations would squabble over Earth's genetic legacy in the future. Check out "City of Pearl" [amzn.to] by Karen Traviss, the first of six volumes in The Wess'har Wars series.
  • Well, you heard it here first, folks...

    It was designed as an impregnable deep-freeze to protect the world's most precious seeds from any global disaster and ensure humanity's food supply forever.

    Global warming is not a global disaster. They designed the vault to protect against any global disaster, it didn't protect against this; therefore this is not a global disaster.

    The logic is irrefutable (and looney).

  • by SlaveToTheGrind ( 546262 ) on Saturday May 20, 2017 @12:47PM (#54455443)

    This is an annual occurrence , as explained by one of the creators of the vault [popsci.com]:

    “Flooding is probably not quite the right word to use in this case,” says Cary Fowler, who helped create the seed vault. “In my experience, there’s been water intrusion at the front of the tunnel every single year.”

    Fowler wasn't at the seed vault this year when the flooding (or 'flooding') in question took place, but has extensive knowledge of the project and facilities. He explains that a 100 meter long tunnel leads into the heart of the mountain where the seed vault is stored, running at a slight downward slope. At the base of the slope are two pumping stations to remove any water that might get in. Then there's a slight uphill section before you reach the doors to the vault itself, where the seeds are kept at 0.4 degrees Fahrenheit or -18 Celsius.

    “The tunnel was never meant to be water tight at the front, because we didn’t think we would need that,” Fowler says. “What happens is, in the summer the permafrost melts, and some water comes in, and when it comes in, it freezes. It doesn’t typically go very far.”

    • And yet, for some reason beyond comprehension, they feel that a pumping station is a better idea than making the first ten meters of the tunnel slope slightly upwards (when looking in..), and therefore be self draining?
      I wonder where they got the pumps with 1000 year service life, along with the never-fail power supply.
      Someone dropped the ball here, luckily it would be an easy fix.. Just recut the first ten meters or so of the tunnel to slope correctly (you would gain an odd ceiling profile, but that should

  • So it flooded but didn't get flooded. Neat.

  • ... nature shows you that you missed an important detail.

    Fukashima anyone?

    As boulet pointed out above, why the heck are the seeds not in airtight containers?!?!

  • I can just imagine the thoughts of the workers as they attempted to enter the vault, built deep inside a mountain in the attic circle, chipping away ice inside the seed vault facility removing ice caused by 'global warming'...

    Seems to me the issue is not the vault, which was not breached, nor the temperature fluctuations that caused permafrost to 'melt' only to freeze in the vault's ante room, but instead was the pin-headed decision to build the vault facility to NOT be water-tight.

    The temperature drop was

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