'EXTREME' thawing of the permafrost around the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, dug into a mountain on Norway's Spitsbergen Island, is damaging its viability as a 'doomsday' store of food crop genetics.

The vault contains nearly a million seed samples which could be used to regrow crops if a planetary emergency was to threaten humanity's food supply. Its site, 800 miles from the North Pole, was chosen for its chilly stability. Unfortunately, as the Norwegian Centre for Climate Services revealed last month, the area is now on the frontline of climate change, experiencing rapid warming.

The temperature is already between four to seven degrees Celsius warmer in Svalbard than it was 50 years ago and is expected to become seven to 10 degrees warmer by 2100. The resultant weakening of the permafrost, the bedrock on which all the structures in the region are built, has already caused homes to become unstable as their foundation softens and sinks.

“It is rare that I use words like this, but what is happening in Svalbard is extreme,” said Norwegian Environment Agency director Ellen Hambro. “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.”

Svalbard's seed vault is one of 1700 seed banks worldwide, but it is special because it is the largest of the vaults, and contains duplicates of all the seeds in the other seed banks, creating a global 'back-up'. Melting permafrost has already flooded its entrance, prompting a $13 million renovation in 2018. The seeds weren’t damaged on that occasion, as they are housed behind another door deeper into the mountain, but the entrance has now been threaded with pipes containing coolant to help the permafrost stay frozen.