It was a freakishly warm evening last October when a maintenance worker first discovered the water — torrents of it, rushing into the entrance tunnel of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a storage facility dug some 400 feet into the side of a mountain on a Norwegian island near the North Pole. A storm was dumping rain at a time of year when the temperature was usually well below freezing; because the water had short-circuited the electrical system, the electric pumps on site were useless. This subterranean safe house holds more than 5,000 species of essential food crops, including hundreds of thousands of varieties of wheat and rice. It was supposed to be an impenetrable, modern-day Noah’s ark for plants, a life raft against climate change and catastrophe. Local firefighters helped pump out the tunnel until the temperature dropped and the water froze. Townspeople from the village at the mountain’s base then brought their own shovels and axes and broke apart the ice sheet by hand.
A few Norwegian radio stations and newspapers reported the incident at the time, but it received little international attention until May, when it was becoming clear that President Trump was likely to pull the United States out of the Paris climate agreement. Suddenly the tidings from Svalbard were everywhere, in multiple languages, with headlines like “World’s ‘Doomsday’ Seed Vault Has Been Breached by Climate Change.” It didn’t matter that the flood happened seven months earlier, or that the seeds remained safe and dry. We had just lived through the third consecutive year of the highest global temperatures on record and the lowest levels of Arctic ice; vast swaths of permafrost were melting; scientists had recently announced that some 60 percent of primate species were threatened with extinction. All these facts felt like signposts to an increasingly hopeless future for the planet. And now, here was a minifable suggesting that our attempts to preserve even mere traces of the bounty around us might fall apart, too.
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