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A post office in Svalbard.
Reuters/Anna Filipova
Life in Svalbard before the apocalypse.
DISASTER PREPAREDNESS

When the apocalypse comes, the world’s works could be safe in a remote doomsday vault

Ephrat Livni
By Ephrat Livni

Senior reporter, law & politics, DC.

After the apocalypse, assuming anyone survives, people won’t be worried about reading immediately. But eventually they’ll want to dive back into humanity’s history of literary works—for distraction, perhaps, or in an effort to understand why it all went to hell. One new library is built to last any sort of disaster to provide just this service to survivors. It’s taking deposits now.

The new data storage facility, called the World Arctic Archive, is built at the edge of the earth, in Svalbard, Norway, inside a mountain on a remote island in the Arctic Ocean.

Still, it will be worth the trek, presumably. Svalbard is a demilitarized zone, an archipelago of islands under Norway’s sovereignty yet sworn to global peace and freedom. Under the 1920 Svalbard Treaty, the archipelago is a visa-free zone and 42 signatory nations may use the area for commercial activities. Mostly that has been mining.

Storage is already a familiar concept in Svalbard. The new doomsday vault, deep in the bowels of a long-abandoned mine, neighbors a seed-storage facility, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, created in 2008, which holds important agricultural materials for safekeeping in case of disaster.

The World Arctic Archive, created by the Norwegian company Piql, is for everyone. Or more precisely, anyone who can pay for a “secure and future-proof” data storage option. Governments, institutions, and individuals from around the world are invited to store their most precious works using the company’s technology.

Already, representatives from the national archives of Norway, Brazil, and Mexico have visited Svalbard to make initial document deposits.

Erick Cardoso, director of Information Technology at Mexico’s national archives, speaking from Svalbad, told NRK, Norway’s state media agency, “We want to ensure our national memory for posterity.” The country has so far deposited contemporary and ancient records, including copies of the modern Mexican constitution and historical Inca writings.

The head of Brazil’s national archives, Ricardo Marques, expressed concern about data safety, apocalypse aside. He stressed the dangers of leaks and threats to cyber security, and believes storing records in Svalbard is a safe option. He too secured a copy of his nation’s constitution in the new remote vault, as well as historical documents on slavery and its termination.

Piql’s technology is supposed to ensure documents remain readable for a long time, even after a disaster, be it nuclear or natural. Katrine Loen Thomsen says that the company has developed a unique way to store layers of data on old-fashioned photosensitive film, rendering the information virtually indestructible for up to 1,000 years. That said, there’s no telling what would happen to the archive if it sustained a direct nuclear hit, say.

“It’s digital data preserved, written onto photosensitive film,” Piql founder Rune Bjerkestrand told Live Science. “So we write data as basically big QR codes on films.” Here’s how it works. Data to be saved is sent to the Piql film writers, just as data is sent to a printer, using a secure information technology infrastructure (like VPN). Once printed, the physical rolls of film—unlike digital data—cannot be edited or attacked remotely. Bjerkestrand says data on the film is as if “carved in stone.”

Hopefully, after the apocalypse there will still be someone left to discover these etchings.

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