Buried deep in the ice on a remote Norwegian archipelago is Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a secure and self-sustaining facility that holds millions of seeds for crucial food crops. Also known as the Doomsday Vault, it's intended to be used in case of a global catastrophe, and has been advertised as as "the ultimate insurance policy for the world’s food supply." But climate change is affecting the Doomsday Vault's environment, the Washington Post reported Wednesday, and a new study suggests that things will only get worse.
Despite some recent scares — including a 2017 incident in which surrounding permafrost melted, collected and then refroze at the entrance of the tunnel to the vault — none of the seeds have been damaged. The vault's managers and creators have expressed nothing but the utmost confidence in the structure's ability to withstand exogenous shocks, and the Norwegian government pledged $18 million to upgrade the vault's fortification after the 2017 scare.
But a recent report, commissioned by the Norwegian Environment Agency and carried out by the Norwegian Center for Climate Services, nevertheless contains some alarming news about the vault's environment.
For instance, the Svalbard archipelago's glaciers are "losing more ice through melting and calving than they are accumulating through snowfall," the report says. In addition, the average temperature of Longyearbyen, the town in which the vault resides, has increased by more than three times since 1900 than the average global increase during that time, according to CNN. In fact, the paper's editor, Inger Hanssen-Bauer, told CNN that Longyearbyen is warming faster than any other town on the planet.
This temperature increase is all the more remarkable given that, as the northernmost town on Earth, Longyearbyen doesn't receive any direct sunlight between late-November and mid-February, according to the BBC. Moreover, the region is experiencing a dramatic increase in rainfall. Hanssen-Bauer told CNN that, while Longyearbyen generally experienced around 7.9 inches of rain every year by the late-20th century, it's had several torrential downpours in recent years that brought as many as two inches of rain in a day. This rainfall causes avalanches, which pose a serious threat to the town's residents; in recent years, several avalanches already destroyed homes as well as killed at least one person in 2015, The Guardian reports.
Recent studies have shown that the Arctic region is especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change. A 2018 study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that temperatures in the Arctic is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world, causing an increase in toxic algal booms that threaten local wildlife. In addition, caribou and wild reindeer populations in the region have fallen by almost 50 percent over the last 20 years, the report found, despite an increase in available vegetation.
“It is rare that I use words like this, but what is happening in Svalbard is extreme,” Norwegian Environment Agency Director Ellen Hambro said in response to the report on the Svalbard archipelago. “The temperature is rising faster here in the Arctic than anywhere else in the world, and climate change has already had major consequences for nature, animals and the community on the island group.”