Considering all the concern over the preservation and protection of data as of late, it seems only fitting to see the debut of a specialized library where copies of the world’s most precious written words — rare texts, historically significant documents and invaluable digital data included — are kept safe, buried deep under the permafrost-covered Arctic tundra of a far-flung Norwegian archipelago.
Dubbed the Arctic World Archive, this fail-safe cold storage facility is certainly in very good company.
Located “far away from political and physical instabilities in the rest of the world,” the for-profit Arctic World Archive is situated within the same abandoned coal mining complex in the same polar bear-occupied settlement on the same windswept island as the famed Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Containing a cache of roughly a half billion seeds (total capacity: 2.5 billion) that represent well over 800,000 unique species of plants, the idea behind the $ 9 million Svalbard Global Seed Vault is that if the world succumbs to some sort of cataclysmic global or regional disaster — nuclear fallout, electromagnetic pulses, rising seas, solar flares, zombie pandemics, etc. — that decimates food supplies, the literal seeds of a new civilization will remain preserved in a subterranean “doomsday” vault located roughly equidistance between mainland Norway and the North Pole near a remote company town-turned-tourist outpost named Longyearbyen (pop: 2,100).
(In 2015, researchers from the International Centre for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas, previously based in war-torn Aleppo, Syria, triggered the first-ever withdrawal from the nearly 10-year-old seed bank.)
Although it safeguards history-shifting knowledge and government-shaping blueprints in lieu of food-generating seeds, the service provided by the Arctic World Archive is essentially the same as the Svalbard Global Seed Bank — that is, if the going gets really rough, copies of the world’s most essential data will remain untouched by manmade and natural disasters. (Yes, the vault, tucked underneath a frozen sandstone mountain in a long-defunct mine, will remain dry even if and when the Arctic ice caps melt.) Perhaps most importantly, the contents of the archive are protected against cyber warfare and electronic attacks.
And the facility doesn’t just provide “secure and future-proof” storage to governmental organizations, as an informational brochure explains: “The Arctic World Archive is for any country, authority, organization, company or individual in need of ultra-secure storage of their valuable information with guaranteed access in the future.”
Unless the sizable local polar bear population gains stages a coup, the Arctic World Archive will remain in a secure, demilitarized zone not far from the North Pole. (Photo: Daniel Sannum Lauren/AFP/Getty Images)
A cache for constitutions and other crucial texts
Founded by Norwegian data preservation firm Piql and operated in conjunction with state mining company SNSK, the Arctic World Archive opened late last month and already holds backup documents and data submitted by three countries: Brazil, Mexico and, naturally, Norway. Just as the Svalbard Global Seed Bank contains copies — spares, if you will — of seeds held in gene banks and other biorepositories across the world, the “originals” of documents submitted by governmental organizations for safekeeping at the Arctic World Archive will remain within the national archives of each respective country.
As reported by ABC News, Brazil and Mexico aren’t — at least yet, anyways — storing duplicates of their entire national archives at the vault in Svalbard. Mexico deposited its constitution, declaration of independence and other select documents of “historical and cultural significance.” Brazil deposited constitution documents, a copy of a law that prohibits slavery as well as photos of the Oscar Niemeyer-designed capital city, Brasilia.
“We are proud to create history for Brazil by being part of this important moment to deposit in the Arctic World Archive the most important documents from the National Archives of Brazil from before the 16th century until the 20th century,” says Ricardo Marques, director of the National Archives of Brazil. “By doing this now we ensure that future generations will have access to this information.”
While the vault’s geographic location in the demilitarized middle-of-nowhere offers one obvious layer of peace of mind-providing protection, the innovative method in which the data is preserved offers another.
Deposits made to the World Arctic Archive are saved for eternity — okay, more like 500 to 1,000 years — on a proprietary analog film that’s photosensitive and inalterable, meaning that the archived data can never, ever be changed.
Gizmodo offers a brief overview of how it works:
… a country can upload test, images or audio-visual content to Piql’s servers. That data is then transferred to the special film that is designed to withstand significant wear and tear. It’s then placed into a secure box and housed inside the heavily fortified vault. As long as the internet and servers are still functioning, the data will remain searchable online. Upon request, it can be delivered digitally or shipped on a physical format of the users choice.
Aside from Norway, Brazil and Mexico, it’s unclear which, if any, other nations also plan to deposit documents and data in the immediate future. Given the anxious global political climate at the moment, it wouldn’t be all too surprising if additional nations follow the leads of these three initial depositees.
And the essay that you wrote in high school that your mother told you a half-million times might save the world some day? You might want to ask her to think about keeping a spare copy in a permafrost-protected vault on the Svalbard islands. Pricing, by the way, hasn’t been officially made public by Piql.
In the meantime, here’s a rare video tour of the World Arctic Archive’s famous neighbor, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, from DNews and Seeker.