Inside the secret Norwegian vault protecting humanity’s vital documents

If life as we know it ends tomorrow, we'll have a future as a species deep in a Norwegian mountain. Steven MacKenzie peeps in

Two hundred metres inside a mountain in the high Arctic, the darkness and silence is suffocating. In this disused mine on the Svalbard archipelago, halfway between the Norwegian mainland and the North Pole, lies the Arctic World Archive, described as “a safe repository for world memory”.

As we become increasingly connected and ever more information about our lives is stored online, privacy, security and the threat of data corruption are growing concerns. That’s where this archive comes in, an off-grid storage facility that aims to act as a cultural time capsule.

Safe in the permafrost on Svalbard with no need for electricity.”

And you don’t get much more off-grid than this spot. The Global Seed Vault, which aims to preserve the planet’s biodiversity lies a few hundred metres down the access road that twists around roaming reindeer. It’s in the -20s outside and not much warmer in the labyrinthine tunnels of a mine that ceased production in 1996. But while measures have been put in place to prevent further tunnel collapses, is the data safe? We’re not allowed to enter the archive itself, but the door’s ajar…

The archive is just a container at the moment,” says Ragnhild Utne, who helps run tours of the mine. “But it will eventually be turned into a secure vault with proper doors – safe in the permafrost on Svalbard with no need for electricity.”

Digital preservation specialists Piql are behind the project and deputy managing director Katrine Loen Thomsen sheds light on what’s behind (almost) closed doors.

“Information is incredibly valuable and the loss or theft of it is a major concern,” Thomsen says. “When data is stored online it can only be protected to a certain point – no system is completely secure. That’s why we believe in offline storage for irreplaceable information – it can’t be hacked or changed!”

Data is stored in binary code on purpose-built piqlFilm, which can last for centuries. Helpfully, instructions about how to extract the data are provided should our descendants come across the vault in centuries to come.

If they can find it. Svalbard’s location was chosen because of its remoteness but also because the Norwegian-governed island has a demilitarised status.

The archive holds all types of content including constitutions and other governing documents, historical treasures, master artworks, contemporary music and art,

“This makes it politically very stable and this is important in an era of cyber warfare,” Thomsen says. “Security of the archive is managed by our partner, Store Norske Spitsbergen Kulkompani (100 per cent owned by the Norwegian government) and they are very well equipped to ensure the security of the vault.”

So who is using the vault? Believe it or not, clients from more than 15 countries include many national governments.

“The archive holds all types of content including constitutions and other governing documents, historical treasures, master artworks, contemporary music and art, architectural drawings, scientific discoveries to name just a few,” Thomsen explains.

“Time poses the greatest risk to data. Having copies in the Arctic World Archive ensures that if every other copy is lost due to technological obsolescence, technical failure or some other disaster, the information is
never lost.”

There is some suggestion that governments are starting to store state secrets here. Is that true?

“No, that is not correct,” Thomsen says. “Governments do not store state secrets in the archive.”

Would you tell us even if they were?

“If it was intended to store such information we would never have talked to the public and the press about the existence of such an archive.”

DID YOU KNOW…

In total, more than 92,000 people have sold The Big Issue since 1991 to help themselves work their way out of poverty – more than could fit into Wembley Stadium.

Alongside documents from the national archives (but no state secrets) of countries including Brazil, Mexico and Norway are digital versions of cultural treasures. To celebrate the European Year of Cultural Heritage, a vote was held in 2018 to choose more items to be digitally preserved, a showcase of the best that humanity has to offer.

Winning artefacts included a Gutenberg Bible, Rembrandt’s The Night Watch, the blueprints of the Guggenheim in Bilbao, details of the Higgs boson breakthrough and, randomly, Music for the Jilted Generation by The Prodigy – the only music from our age that apocalypse survivors may get to listen to.

The only significant cultural artefact that’s missing is a copy of the most remarkable magazine that has ever existed, The Big Issue. How much would it cost to put these pages into storage?

“We charge a yearly fee, however we don’t publish our prices publicly,” Thomsen says. “If you have a project in mind, let us know and we can discuss how we can meet your needs.”

piql.com/arctic-world-archive/