Inside the arctic vault protecting human culture from an apocalypse

The disaster-proof Arctic World Archive was designed to safeguard human culture, and it now includes 21 TB of our most important source code.

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Buried deep in a decommissioned coal mine in the northernmost settlement of the world lies the Arctic World Archive. This apocalyptic vault is designed to preserve both physical and digital artifacts for future generations in the event of a global disaster.

It serves as a data repository, protecting important pieces of human culture – relics of art, literature, and religion – from an unknown future. And in our digitized world, the vault now contains 21 terabytes of open source code.

To pull it off, the Arctic World Archive partnered with GitHub, a code hosting platform and the world’s largest software repository. GitHub works with smart phone operating systems, digital payment platforms, open source software agencies, and many others to manage and secure their products.

Many of these are products we use and interact with every day. The code they’re built on is an invisible component of modern culture that’s become essential to our way of life. GitHub backs up all of this code in data centers around the world, but hard drives aren’t disaster-proof. For this reason, GitHub and the Arctic World Archive sought to find a more permanent solution for data preservation: film. 

Protecting Mankind’s Most Valuable Assets

The Arctic World Archive was inaugurated in March of 2017 with the intention of preserving the world’s most treasured assets. Initiated by a data storage company in Norway called Piql, the vault is located on the island of Spitsbergen.

The Arctic World Archive isn’t the first operation of its kind. In fact, it’s just down the road from the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which opened in 2008 as the result of an international treaty aimed at preserving plant genetic material. The seed vault’s remote location proved to be the ideal setting for the Arctic World Archive to begin its own operations.

The archive is now located 300 meters deep inside a decommissioned coal mine in an Arctic mountain, where it houses manuscripts from the Vatican Library, artifacts of Brazilian soccer history, masterpieces from Rembrandt and Munch, and other cultural treasures such as popular music, scientific breakthroughs, and political histories.

Deposits from organizations in 17 different countries have been made into the vault, with the first deposits made by the national archives of Mexico and Brazil. In 2019, GitHub initially added thousands of projects to the vault, including source code for the Android operating system and Bitcoin cryptocurrency.

This year, GitHub deposited 21 TB of open source code into the archive, all on just 186 reels of Piql film – a “high-resolution photosensitive film specially designed for longevity and high density digital writing.” 

21 TB of Open Source Code, Captured on Film

To ensure the safety of the source code, it was imperative to find an offline medium that could withstand all foreseeable threats. As it turns out, chemically stable and unalterable film was the best tool available for the job.

This process of using the film to preserve data was created by Piql. It consists of converting files into QR codes and then writing them onto individual frames in a reel of film. The reel is then processed in a developer cartridge, before going through an intensive quality assurance check.

“We have converted film into a modern, digital information carrier,” Rune Bjerkestrand, the founder of Piql, explains. “You can’t really see it with your bare eyes, but once you put it under the microscope it’s actual individual pixels filling up a super high resolution QR code.”

The first few frames on each reel of film contain instructions in five different languages on how to convert the QR codes into usable files. All that a future human would need to reconstruct the data is a computer, a camera, and a light source. The film reels are stored inside steel-walled containers, deep within the earth.

GitHub’s deposit into the Arctic World Archive ensures that, in the case of a global disaster, people wouldn’t be forced to begin anew. They could instead pull from this massive repository of the inner workings of contemporary society.

It is believed that the film will be able to last up to 500 years in the vault, which is positioned to withstand whatever mankind faces over the coming years, including the effects of climate change. The vault is also in what is considered one of the most geopolitically stable locations on the planet.

What the Arctic vault holds is a picture of our society – the mistakes we’ve made and the feats we’ve accomplished. It’s representative of the progress and capability of mankind. And the newly added 21 TB of code is just as crucial to representing human culture as the physical artifacts that accompany it.

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