Researchers Warn Buried Internet Cables at Risk as Sea Levels Rise

Jul 20, 2018, 15:26
Researchers Warn Buried Internet Cables at Risk as Sea Levels Rise

Researchers used data from the Internet Atlas - which maps the internet's infrastructure around the world - along with sea level projections from the NOAA. That's how long experts say it will be before thousands of miles of American internet cables will be submerged by rising seas. Buried fiber optic cables are created to be water resistant, but unlike the marine cables that ferry data under the ocean, they are not waterproof.

Coastal cities, such as NY and Miami are most susceptible, but the potential for disruption could be global.

"Hopefully, our findings will alert people that we don't have 100 years to solve this", said Paul Barford, University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of computer science and lead author of the paper. "We don't have 50 years", he said.

"When it was built 20-25 years ago, no thought was given to climate change", Barford says.

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Miller and his colleagues are now working on a new set of Washington state-specific sea level rise projections that they hope will be able to predict local effects more accurately.

Moreover, much of the data that transits the internet tends to converge on a small number of fiber optic strands that lead to large population centers like NY, one of the more vulnerable cities identified in the study.

Some cities are already working on hardening Internet infrastructure to handle the effects of climate change.

Behind every tweet, meme, and bank transaction is a vast network of fiber optic cables and other infrastructure that makes up the "physical internet".

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Because their networks are proprietary, telecom companies are the only ones who can say for sure how much risk sea level rise poses to their infrastructure.

"So much of the infrastructure that's been deployed is right next to the coast, so it doesn't take much more than a few inches or a foot of sea level rise for it to be underwater", said study coauthor Paul Barford, according to National Geographic. The damage will ripple across the internet, says Barford, potentially disrupting global communications.

"So what? Submarine cables are meant to get wet!" you might say - yes, but the onshore infrastructure isn't protected against a soaking like a cable created to exist at depths of 5,000 metres. The storm surges that followed Hurricane Sandy and Hurricane Katrina hint at the problems to come, Barford added.

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of OR have taken a look at the risk factors of climate change and how it may impact the internet and their findings are unsettling. "But keeping the sea at bay is hard". This study should be seen as a "wake-up call".

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"When you're thinking about the risk of expensive assets or infrastructure that's going to last a long time, you really want to think about these high or fast scenarios", explained Amy Snover, the director of the climate impacts group at the University of Washington. "We need to start looking at it very soon so that we can take steps to ensure our communication capability in the United States".

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