‘Doomsday’ vault may be a victim of excesses

Columnist  | Hajrah Mumtaz

Opinion, Columnists

The facility was created to protect the world’s important seeds from global disaster — manmade or natural.

The flooding was a result of global warming, which has led to extraordinary temperatures in the Arctic.

Deep in the Arctic Circle, in the land of permanent ice and snow, in the Svalbard archipelago on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, a long, narrow mass of concrete protrudes out of the landscape, its sides exuding frost like smoke.

This is the Global Seed Vault, also known as the doomsday vault, run by the Norwegian government. It was designed as an impregnable deep freezer where the cold would sustain itself. Inside are almost a million packets of seeds, each one a variety of a vital food crop. The facility was created to protect the world’s important seeds from global disaster — manmade or natural.

It was created so that mankind’s food supply was forever protected. Opened in 2008, it was expected that the deep permafrost into which the vault is sunk would provide “failsafe” protection.

But this is no longer the land of permanent ice and snow. This weekend saw the vault’s entrance breached, with water flowing into the start of the tunnel. The water then froze, “so it was like a glacier when you went in,” a spokesperson from the Norwegian government told the press.

Thankfully, the meltwater did not reach that part of the vault where the seeds are stored; the ice has been hacked out, and mankind’s food supply is safe for now. But scientists are worried.

The flooding was a result of global warming, which has led to extraordinary temperatures in the Arctic. At a time when light snow ought to have been falling in the region, the latter experienced, instead, melting and heavy rain, which sent meltwater gushing into the vault’s entrance tunnel.

As the Norwegian government spokesperson, Hege Aschim, pointed out, “It was not in our plans to think that the permafrost would not be there and that it would experience extreme weather like that.”

Matters have been dealt with for now, with the managers of the vault working to waterproof the tunnel leading into the vault. Trenches are being dug on the surface to channel rain and meltwater away, electrical equipment in the tunnel has been removed to save it from even the low levels of heat thus produced, and pumps are being installed in the vault itself in case of another flood in the future.

But the greater question looms: Will the facility even survive as humanity’s lifeline in case catastrophe strikes?

Perhaps, say worried voices in the scientific community, it has already struck — catastrophe along a sliding continuum that has been unfolding for years and might in the future escalate at a frightening pace.

That global warming is under way has been known for years, and in recent times the tipping point has been reached in that even if mankind were to somehow immediately be able to halt all the activities that led to this situation, it would take a long, long while for the effects of climate change to be rolled back.

Humanity, but perhaps more importantly, Planet Earth, cannot spare itself of at least some of the consequences.

After all, as Ms Aschim said when the Global Seed Vault facility was breached, “It was supposed to operate without the help of humans, but now we are watching [it] 24 hours a day.”

Now, the wait is to see whether the extreme heat this year was a one-off or will be repeated — or even exceeded.

A representative of Norway’s Meteorological Institute explained that the Arctic, and particularly Svalbard, are warming up faster than the rest of the world.

On Spitsbergen, the end of 2016 saw average temperatures as much as seven degrees Celsius above normal.

Could it be that the planet is fighting back against mankind’s ruinous activities?

A fortnight ago, it was reported that as the permafrost melts in the Arctic, scientists are worried that ancient diseases for which there are no vaccinations and to which humanity has no immunity may be resurrected.

Permafrost is an excellent preserver of viruses and microbes; bacteria can remain alive for up to even a million years.

Last August, a boy died and nearly two dozen people had to be hospitalised in the Siberian tundra because of anthrax that was likely released into the food and water supply as the decades-old frozen carcass of an infected reindeer thawed.

The Spanish flu virus dating back to 1918 has been detected alive in corpses buried in the Alaskan tundra, and researchers consider smallpox and the bubonic plague highly likely to be buried in Siberia.

Writing about this, I noted the irony in the fact that mankind’s activities that are responsible for climate change, might become the cause for a mass cull.

The same goes for the doomsday vault: the very thing that is supposed to save the human race may fall victim to the latter’s doings.

By arrangement with Dawn