Climate Change: Doomsday Vault Designed to Protect World's Food Supply Will Receive $13 Million Upgrade

A general view of the entrance of the international gene bank Svalbard Global Seed Vault (SGSV), outside Longyearbyen on Spitsbergen, Norway, on February 29, 2016. JUNGE, HEIKO/AFP/Getty Images

On Monday, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway­­—dubbed the Doomsday Vault—accepted a delivery of 76,000 new seed samples, surpassing its 1 million mark.

The vault—which also celebrated its 10th anniversary on the day the milestone was reached—was designed to protect the world's crops from local and global disasters, such as nuclear war or catastrophic climate change.

National and international seed banks from around the world send backup samples of their unique crops to be kept in cold storage inside the Norwegian government-run facility—which is carved into a mountainside on the remote Svalbard archipelago, halfway between Norway and the North Pole.

In the event that one, or more, crop varieties is wiped out, a seed can be taken from the vault to help replace it, safeguarding the world's food supply and maintaining crop diversity.

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Among the new seeds delivered to the vault on Monday were samples of the Estonian onion potato, Bambara groundnuts and Hunter barley, which is used to make Irish beer.

"It is simply impressive that 1 million seed samples from all over the world have now found their way to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault," said Norwegian Minister of Agriculture and Food Jon Georg Dale. "It confirms the important role of the seed vault as a worldwide insurance for food supply for future generations and an ever-growing population."

Many of the world's 1,700 seed banks are vulnerable to war, natural disasters or even seemingly mundane problems, such as broken-down cooling systems. The Svalbard vault, on the other hand, is considered a more secure site. It is located underneath a mountain permafrost on a remote island.

But ironically for a facility designed to safeguard the world's food supply against threats such as climate change, the Norwegian government is planning to spend $13 million on upgrades in order to keep the vault operational in the face of global warming.

Despite being halfway between Norway and the North Pole, temperatures in the Svalbard archipelago are expected to rise from an average of 21 degrees (-5.9 C) to 38 degrees Fahrenheit (3.3 C). Rainfall is also expected to increase 40 percent by the end of the century, according to a feasibility study commissioned by the Ministry of Agriculture and Food.

"The main principle for construction in permafrost areas is to avoid the warming and thawing of permafrost," a spokesperson for Statsbygg—the state-owned company which conducted the feasibility study—said in a statement. "Climate change will lead to increased ground temperatures and less permafrost," which may require artificial cooling of the ground.

As part of the future-proofing improvements, the vault will be fitted with new refrigeration units, a service building incorporating an emergency power unit, a concrete access tunnel and new electrical equipment. Meanwhile, waterproof walls have already been added as protection against flooding from melting ice and rain.

While $13 million may seem like a significant sum of money, the vault has already proven effective. In 2015, the Syrian Civil War prompted the first seed withdrawals from the vault when researchers requested samples of wheat, barley and other grasses suited to dry regions, in order to replace seeds in a gene bank that had been badly damaged by the war.

At present, only one of the rectangular vault's three chambers are full meaning there is still room for 4.5 million unique seed samples.