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Arctic 'doomsday' vault seeks to protect world's most precious data

Posted at 6:42 PM, Apr 04, 2017

Deep inside an abandoned mine on the Arctic island of Svalbard, some 650 miles (1,046 km) from the North Pole, a mysterious new library has opened its doors.

It's called the Arctic World Archive, and it has a critical mission: To protect the world's historically and scientifically important data in the event of a future cataclysmic disaster. It's open to submissions from around the globe, of anything from scientific journals to works of classical literature.

Set almost 500 feet (150 meters) below ground, the vault is protected from nuclear attack. Its data collections are kept offline to protect from possible corruption or hacking.

And the surrounding permafrost creates the ideal climate for long-term storage. Even if the power failed, the temperature inside will remain below freezing, enough to preserve the vault's contents for decades, maybe centuries.

''It's a unique and ultra-secure way that future generations can get information from the past easily in the present,'' says project manager Katrine Thomson of Piql, the Norwegian company behind this new venture.

"The amount of data increases every year, and there are no other solutions for long-term data storage," she said.

Piql says it has spent more than $33 million developing new technology to store data securely for long periods of time. The company describes the remote Arctic location, on a cluster of Norwegian islands declared demilitarized by 42 nations, as "the safest place on the planet for a 'digital embassy.'''

Located about halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole, Svalbard is home to the northernmost year-round settlement on Earth and the Global Seed Vault, which preserves millions of seeds in case a disaster wipes out the planet's crops.

Piql's technology allows text, film or photographs to be translated into binary code, which is imprinted onto photosensitive film and kept on reels inside the vault. Storing the data in physical form ensures it's protected against possible cyberattack. Piql claims their method of storing data is so robust it could last for more than 500 years.

Customers can retrieve their data using special scanners developed by Piql. The company also provides a "disaster recovery" option, where data from film reels is recovered using only a digital camera and a computer.

Piql is inviting governments, companies and individuals to use the library to store data for future generations. So far Norway, Brazil and Mexico are the only countries who've made deposits.

Brazil has submitted important historical documents from their national archives, including a copy of their constitution and one of the first photographs of the nation's capital, Brasilia.

''By doing this now we are ensuring that future generations will have access to this information,'' said Ricardo Marques, director of the National Archives of Brazil, in a statement on the company's website.

Mexico also deposited a copy of its constitution, along with historic maps, drawings and illustrations.

''It is an amazing feeling to know that my own nation's memory will be kept for future generations to see on this arctic island," added Erick Cardoso of the National Archive of Mexico.

The mission of the Arctic World Archive is similar to that of the neighboring "doomsday seed vault," which opened in 2008. There scientists store an estimated 556 million seeds to protect the world's most important crops from potential human-made and natural disasters. The seeds are kept at a constant temperature of -18° to keep them from degrading.

In 2015, scientists in Syria used seeds from the vault to replace samples they had lost as a result of the ongoing war in the country.