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SVALBARD

‘Doomsday’ seed vault gets makeover as Arctic heats up

Designed to withstand a nuclear missile hit, the world's biggest seed vault, nestled deep inside an Arctic mountain, is undergoing a makeover as rising temperatures melt the permafrost meant to protect it.

'Doomsday' seed vault gets makeover as Arctic heats up
File photo: Heiko Junge / NTB scanpix

Dubbed the “Noah's Ark” of food crops, the Global Seed Vault is buried inside a former coal mine on Svalbard, a remote Arctic island in a Norwegian archipelago around 1,000 kilometres from the North Pole.

Opened in 2008, the seed bank plays a key role in preserving the world's genetic diversity: it is home to more than a million varieties of seeds, offering a safety net in case of natural catastrophe, war, climate change, disease or manmade disasters.

But warmer temperatures have disrupted the environment around the vault. In an unexpected development, the permafrost, which was meant to help keep the temperature inside the vault at a constant -18 Celsius, melted in 2016.

“The summer season was (warmer) than expected. We had water intrusions in the (access) tunnel that could be related to climate change,” Åsmund Asdal, one of the seed bank's coordinators, told AFP.

The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, scientific studies show. And while Europe is at the moment experiencing a sub-zero cold spell, the North Pole recently registered above-zero temperatures, 30 degrees higher than normal.

Scientists say warm spells like this are occurring with increasing frequency in the Arctic.

Norway recently announced it would contribute 100 million kroner (10 million euros) to improve the repository in a bid to protect the precious seeds.

“We want to be sure that the seed vault will be cold throughout the whole year, even if the temperature continues to increase in Svalbard,” Norway's Agriculture Minister Jon Georg Dale told AFP.

The vault's raison d'etre was recently highlighted by the war in Syria, when scientists were able to withdraw seeds after a seed bank in Aleppo was destroyed in a bombing.

To access the heart of the vault where the seeds are stored, authorised visitors must first pass through heavy doors and a concrete, 120-metre (393-foot) tunnel, giving the chilling impression of delving into an Arctic abyss.

The tunnel leads to three cold chambers protected by locked gates. Inside each one, seeds from all over the world are stored in sealed plastic boxes labelled with the country of origin and the variety.

Outside, nothing betrays the presence of the storage site so vital to humanity, apart from a monumental entrance: the narrow cement-and-steel rectangular portal juts out of the snow-covered mountainside, illuminated with artwork made of mirrors and bits of metal that create a colourful prism visible for miles around.

On the mountain, workers' cabins dot the slope amid construction cranes and machinery, soiling the otherwise pristine white landscape.

Renovations to shore up the fortress are already under way. The improvements will enable it to “handle the climate for the next decades”, said Dale.

The access tunnel will be reinforced, and a cabin will be built near the site to house the technical materials that can generate heat — to prevent a recurrence of melting permafrost.

At the foot of the mountain, the fjord's swirling waters are a worrying indication of the state of the climate, according to Marie Haga of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, one of the seed vault's three partners alongside Nordic gene bank NordGen and the Norwegian government.

“When I came after 1985, the fjord was completely frozen,” she recalled.

READ ALSO: Norway's 'Noah's Ark' seed vault chalks up a million crop varieties

MUSEUM

Norway digitally freezes national treasures and stores them in Arctic archive

Norway’s National Museum has preserved some of the country’s most treasured artefacts digitally and stored them in a former mine on Arctic archipelago Svalbard.

Norway digitally freezes national treasures and stores them in Arctic archive
Photo: Bartek Luks on Unsplash

The Arctic World Archive was originally constructed in 2017 to “protect the world’s most important cultural relics”, the National Museum said on its website.

The data preservation facility is located on the island of Spitsbergen, part of the Svalbard archipelago, not far from the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.

The National Museum has now placed its entire collection of around 400,000 items as digital copies on plastic film rolls, which are to be stored at the Longyearbyen site.

“The dry, cold and low-oxygen air gives optimal conditions for storing digital archives and the film rolls will have a lifetime of around 1,000 years in the archive,” the museum writes. Emissions emitted by the archive are low due to its low energy consumption.

Offline storage of the archives also insures them against cyber attacks, the museum said.

In addition to all data from the National Museum collection database, high-resolution digital images of works by selected artists are included in the archive.

Works to be stored include ‘The Scream’ by Edvard Munch, ‘Winter Night in the Mountains’ by Harald Sohlberg, the Baldishol Tapestry and Queen Maud’s ball dress.

“At the National Museum we have works from antiquity until today. We work with the same perspective on the future. The collection is not only ours, but also belongs to the generations after us,” National Museum director Karin Hindsbo said via the museum’s website.

“By storing a copy of the entire collection in the Arctic World Archive, we are making sure the art will be safe for many centuries,” Hindsbo added.

In addition to the Norwegian artefacts, organisations from 15 other countries are represented in the archive, including national museums in Mexico, Brazil and India; the Vatican library, Sweden’s Moderna Museet and Unicef.

READ ALSO: Norway's Arctic 'doomsday vault' stocks up on 60,000 more food seeds

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