GitHub Is Burying Bitcoin Code Inside an Arctic Mountain to Ride Out the Next 1,000 Years

Deep inside a forsaken coal mine on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, the Bitcoin Core code repository will be kept on film reels and stored for centuries.

AccessTimeIconApr 1, 2020 at 8:00 a.m. UTC
Updated Sep 14, 2021 at 8:24 a.m. UTC

An icy mountain in Norway’s Svalbard – an all but inhabitable Arctic archipelago covered in glaciers and inhabited by polar bears – is an unlikely safe haven for cryptocurrency code, let alone a pillar of modern-day civilization.

But it's here, 250 meters underground in a forsaken coal mine, that GitHub has chosen to store reams of open-source code. That includes Bitcoin Core, by far the most popular code implementation of bitcoin's underlying infrastructure and one of the most used repositories on GitHub.

As a part of an archiving program for safeguarding an important part of technological history, a "snapshot" of all this code will be copied onto film reels and stored in a steel container, all done in an effort to keep the data alive and unscathed for 1,000 years.

The team is currently getting this data ready. The official deposit into the mountain is planned for late April, a GitHub spokesperson told CoinDesk.

But, while Bitcoin Core is featured, most cryptocurrency projects stored on GitHub will also be included, including bitcoin's forward-looking Lightning Network, and the code behind other cryptocurrencies, such as ethereum and dogecoin.

Organizations like the non-profit digital library Internet Archive and the future-looking cultural non-profit Long Now Foundation are backing the effort, and historians, anthropologists and other scientists are advising it.

Bitcoin and Ethereum coders are fans of the initiative. "The more backups the merrier," as ethereum developer Ligi put it to CoinDesk.

"I think it's likely that at some point in the future the electronic record will be lost. It's all pretty fragile. Preserving some things on hard copy could definitely help avoid a hole in history," said Wladimir van der Laan, lead maintainer of Bitcoin Core.

The archive potentially provides a way for people up to 1,000 years from now to figure out what on earth cryptocurrency was or how it evolved – if it manages to last a millennium. 

"In one sense, this is a fascinating section of financial history that we should preserve for future study," Avanti Chief Technology Officer and Bitcoin Core contributor Bryan Bishop said.

History's limits

While archiving cryptocurrency code could plug historical holes for historians, there are limits to what storing this information will enable.

Van der Laan pointed out that, from a software engineer's perspective, the code might not make much sense to coders hundreds of years from now. 

"As a developer, I do find the idea of a future historian trying to puzzle together our (what goes for) civilization from reams of clever hacks, spaghetti code and context-specific source code kind of amusing," van der Laan said. 

Jason Teutsch, the founder of Ethereum infrastructure project Truebit and a computer science researcher, argued similarly: Explanations of the code should sit alongside the raw material.

"The social, economic, regulatory and academic records depicting motivations and resources for code development may ultimately become more important than the code itself," he said.

As a part of the program, GitHub will store a guide to using the archive for those in a future time, including descriptions of "most significant" repositories to provide clearer context.

As a developer who hosts a wiki for futurist technological ideas, Avanti’s Bishop is looking to preserve information even further into the future. In fact, Bishop is awaiting a patent for a way to store information inside of DNA. He notes that the genetic instructions guiding an organism's growth can preserve information for hundreds of thousands of years.

And while this project could help preserve some history, Bishop argues there's plenty of other important information out there that should be stored in a similar fashion.

"Beyond GitHub, I think they need to seriously consider archiving Sci-Hub, which has over 70 million scientific articles," Bishop said. “It's one of the great feats of human intellect and progress, and it needs to be preserved.”

UPDATE (April. 9 02:09 UTC): This article has been updated to clarify that GitHub is storing some supplementary material along with the code.


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