© 2018 The Author(s). Systems of interacting nanomagnets known as artificial spin ice1-4have allowed the design, realization and study of geometrically frustrated exotic collective states5-10that are absent in natural magnets. We have experimentally measured11,12the thermally induced moment fluctuations in the Shakti geometry of artificial spin ice. We show that its disordered moment configuration is a topological phase described by an emergent dimer-cover model13with excitations that can be characterized as topologically charged defects. Examination of the low-energy dynamics of the system confirms that these effective topological charges have long lifetimes associated with their topological protection, that is, they can be created and annihilated only as charge pairs with opposite sign and are kinetically constrained. This manifestation of classical topological order14-19demonstrates that geometrical design in nanomagnetic systems can lead to emergent, topologically protected kinetics that can limit pathways to equilibration and ergodicity.