Rising Sea Levels Could Destroy Key Internet Infrastructure

Joanna Estrada
July 20, 2018

The Internet is particularly susceptible to flooding because data travels through underground cables buried along roadways and through tunnels.

Barford is considered an authority on the physical Internet - the buried fibre optic cables, data centres, traffic exchanges and termination points that are the nerve centres, arteries and hubs of the Internet.

In a talk to internet network researchers, Ramakrishnan Durairajan, an assistant professor in the computer and information science department at the University of OR, warned that most of the damage could come in the next 15 years. Roadways, power lines, and sewage networks will be affected, as well.

In 2015, a heat wave in Australia fried air conditioners at a key data center, cutting off a major company's Internet service for hours. Large portions of the physical Internet are spread across major coastal cities, including New York, Miami and Seattle - all cities threatened by rising seas.

'Sea level is often communicated as a really slow process that you can't do much about. but the next 30 years really matter, ' lead author Dr Matthias Mengel, of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, in Potsdam, Germany, told Reuters. The most susceptible US cities, according to the report, are New York, Miami, and Seattle, but that doesn't mean other areas won't be affected.

"The primary nature will be to solidify the framework", Barford said. "We can presumably purchase a brief period, yet over the long haul it's simply not going to be viable".

One way to mitigate flood risk is to replace copper wiring with more flood-resilient cables.

"I think this is exactly the kind of question we should be asking", said Ian Miller, a coastal hazard specialist with the Washington Sea Grant. "Copper is impacted by water, whereas fiber is not".

Ocean level ascent debilitates the web, as per another examination by specialists at the colleges of Wisconsin and Oregon.

The one exception is at so-called cable landing stations where undersea cables connect the U.S. Internet to the rest of the world. Large swaths of this vital communications infrastructure could be underwater in less than 15 years, researchers warn.

Seawater inundation projected for New York City by 2033 and its effect on internet infrastructure.

A vast web of physical infrastructure undergirds the internet connections that touch almost every aspect of modern life.

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

The study, conducted with Barford's former student Ramakrishnan Durairajan, now of the University of OR, and Carol Barford, who directs UW-Madison's Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment, is the first assessment of risk of climate change to the internet.

For example, he says, if some wires are temporarily flooded, "can we reroute traffic from that area, to keep communication going?" When those submarine cables reach coastal cities, though, the physical cabling switches from water-proof wires to merely water-resistant ones.

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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