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Arctic stronghold of world’s seeds flooded after permafrost melts (theguardian.com)
96 points by finid 9 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 44 comments

>"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."

This story makes the design/management of that place look really bad. In 2007 the IPCC was predicting a 0.4 C average temperature rise by 2020 and about 1.0 C by 2040[1], etc. This isn't too far off from what happened[2], so this makes it look like they did not plan ahead at all.

[1] http://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar4/syr/ar4_syr_spm... (Figure SPM.5)

[2] http://www.woodfortrees.org/graph/wti

Time for a backup vault on the other side of the arctic in Ellesmere Island. This time maybe they can tunnel an upward slope into a stable mountain so no moisture will be able to flow in, and moisture originating inside should (in theory) flow out.

Or fly them to the moon!

That and saving the seeds of flowering plants without preserving eggs of pollinating insects isn't very useful.

I remember hearing I think it was a Radiolab episode which talked of an instance where a lot pollination was done by humans, by hand, with paint brushes and pollen. It turned out that the humans were actually better at it than the insects, because they were more consistent. So the result was a crop that was larger than it would have been had insects done the pollinating.

It's kind of a "waste" of human effort to do manual pollination like that rather than having insects do it "for free", but in an emergency, if that's all you've got, then it can be done.

It also seems to me like this kind of work would be ripe for automation with robots or drones somewhere down the line if, say, most bees wound up dying out and humans were forced to pollinate by hand at a large scale.

You should check out the latest black mirror episode.

It isn't so bad. Pollinating hundreds or thousands of flowers by hand in an hour is imaginable.

Better to have friendly insects do it, but if you want the fruits, having humans step in is viable (it is or at least has been done for apples in China).

There's also a lot of plants that self or wind pollinate (most grains).

The vault against the story the media try to tell is not for mankind coming back from some apocalyptic event. It works like a bank vault. Anyone who wants can pay them money to keep sets safe. The common use case is for protecting seeds of crops your country cares about in case some pest kills all the crops or similar. Not for Mad Max.

Thanks, so then the first line is straight up fake news:

>"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."

I think it's safe to assume that while it's not the immediate intention, it certainly can act as such in a pinch.

This story makes it sounds like it can't because the vault was not built to last even 10 years.

Using drones to perform pollination would not be too difficult I wouldn't think...

Actually, why live at all? If there are no humans, then there's no need for food, problem solved.

Yeah! We don't need the baby or the bathwater!

Wait, I thought it was still 2017. 2020 already happened?

"It was not in our plans to think that the permafrost would not be there and that it would experience extreme weather like that,”

Sorry, but isn't that the entire point of a "doomsday vault". To protect from doomsday events, like extreme climate change?

It not really a doomsday vault despite the media trying to portrait it like that. It's really a seed storage for anyone who wants to store some seeds.

I visited the vault a few years ago and was very disappointed to learn this. I had imagined some committee planning what we need to get back from Mad Max to normal. But it's really more like a bank lock box.

How did you arrange your visit to the vault? I want to plan a trip to Svalbard, and I emailed about visiting the vault, but they said they do not do tours. They even resisted my "I'm a scientist who enjoys visiting big scientific infrastructure" spiel.


“We have to find solutions. It is a big responsibility and we take it very seriously. We are doing this for the world.”

“This is supposed to last for eternity,” said Åsmund Asdal at the Nordic Genetic Resource Centre, which operates the seed vault.

Yes, it is supposed to last "forever". It's not however a "doomsday vault" that is supposed to protect from "doomsday events". It's not meant to carry us through the apocalypse or literally last forever.

That makes a lot more sense, I'm glad you pointed that out. I was getting to thinking the Norwegians had gone crazy and started trying to store seeds to hedge against the apocalypse.

"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."

It would be interesting to learn what mistakes were made on a process level here.

Were warnings from people who predicted flooding ignored for some reason, like warning of concerned NASA engineers about the safety of the Space Shuttle? Or did no one honestly predict flooding in a region covered by snow despite global warming?

There could be some valuable lessons here for participants in Long Now and similar projects.

The vault’s managers are now waiting to see if the extreme heat of this winter was a one-off or will be repeated or even exceeded as climate change heats the planet.

I really want to believe that this is an example of poor communication by the journalist as opposed to clueless passivity by administrators. Unfortunately, I suspect it's accurate.

Later on the article describes that they installed pumps and removed heat sources. Of course that doesn't solve the problem of operating without humans and without flooding, but I imagine getting funding for major changes is much easier once it's exceedingly clear that this wasn't a fluke.

> "failsale" against "man-made disasters"

Nothing is fool proof to a sufficiently talented fool!

>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”.

Guess it wasn't all that fail safe after all

If you'd like to see more about how the Svalbard Seed Vault works and how countries including North Korea have seeds stored there, Veritasium has a great video on the subject: https://youtu.be/2_OEsf-1qgY

It looks like an engineering flaw that lets outside water into 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,” The fact that the water froze as it entered is good as that means the vault was still very cold. Likely this has an engineering fix. It would be nice if the article discussed if the vault temp was rising faster than expected and if/when passive cooling would fail in the future. This should be the real worry about vault failure. Sophisticated click bait, really.

Ice coated satellite on a reL long ellipse.. Seed drop on no signal in capsules in exp time intervals

Antarctica then?

What's the point of putting it somewhere maximally inaccessible with lots of ice? I was never that sold on the idea of putting it on a coastal island to begin with. I realize they want somewhere cold but a large mountain cave seems a better bet. That's where we put things that are meant to withstand nuclear war or similarly drastic upheavals.

I don't blame the organizers for that, it's a lot harder to raise money for protecting biodiversity than for making weapon systems, but this outcome suggests to me that our institutional cooperation models of governance are not working well.

Placing the vault in a more populous and accessible region increases the possibility of, well, take your pick: theft, terrorism, political interference, collateral damage in the case of war, and so on.

The existence of other considerations doesn't validate the poor choices that have already been made. I said at the time that putting a vault on a small island near sea level might not be a great plan given the wholly predictable rise in sea levels over the long term.

It was a predictably stupid decision, and the only surprising part is that the stupidity became obvious so early rather than 50 or 75 years from now as more conservative models of climate change suggested could be the case.

I am absolutely in favor of projects like this that are built to maximize survivability of ecosystems in the face of unpredictable change. But you are saying that all risks are equivalent over the long term and it's impossible to choose between them, which I think is an absurd copout.

The reality here is that there wasn't enough money or political will to invest in something more obviously permanent, so we ended up with a shitty system that has started to fail within a single decade, will now probably have to be decommissioned (because the problem is only likely to get worse), and we've got to start over. It's not a total write-off, much valuable work has been done, but it's plain that trying to cheap out on the location was a dreadful false economy.

The vault is 130m above sea level. It's not going to flood even if the arctic and antarctic both melt entirely.

Also, when I questioned the wisdom of putting it somewhere maximally inaccessible, I didn't necessarily mean they should have gone to the opposite extreme of putting it in the middle of a population center.

Nothing personal but this mode of argument seems both fallacious and unhelpful. I suggested an alternative (a somewhat accessible mountain cave) grounded in real-world experience (actual locations of military command centers). I don't understand why you chose to ignore one half of a short comment in order to produce a facile refutation of the other half.

I didn't mean middle of manhattan. Even rural Kentucky is readily accessible.

Also, on any sane design, the entrance would be below the vault.

The entrance is V shaped, and is fitted with pumps at the bottom.

Clever, but depending on the flooding, the pressurization inside the vault may not be enough to keep water out.

Granite Mountain would be just about perfect.


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