As Seas Rise: The Internet is Drowning

July 24, 2018

internetdrownnyc

Seawater inundation projected for New York City by 2033 and its effect on internet infrastructure. Anything in the blue shaded areas is estimated to be underwater in 15 years.

University of Wisconsin:

Thousands of miles of buried fiber optic cable in densely populated coastal regions of the United States may soon be inundated by rising seas, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and the University of Oregon.

The study, presented here today (July 16, 2018) at a meeting of internet network researchers, portrays critical communications infrastructure that could be submerged by rising seas in as soon as 15 years, according to the study’s senior author, Paul Barford, a UW–Madison professor of computer science.

“Most of the damage that’s going to be done in the next 100 years will be done sooner than later,” says Barford, an authority on the “physical internet” — the buried fiber optic cables, data centers, traffic exchanges and termination points that are the nerve centers, arteries and hubs of the vast global information network. “That surprised us. The expectation was that we’d have 50 years to plan for it. We don’t have 50 years.”

The study, conducted with Barford’s former student Ramakrishnan Durairajan, now of the University of Oregon, 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. It suggests that by the year 2033 more than 4,000 miles of buried fiber optic conduit will be underwater and more than 1,100 traffic hubs will be surrounded by water. The most susceptible U.S. cities, according to the report, are New York, Miami and Seattle, but the effects would not be confined to those areas and would ripple across the internet, says Barford, potentially disrupting global communications.

National Geographic:

Scientists mapped out the threads and knots of internet infrastructure in the U.S. and layered that on top of maps showing future sea level rise. What they found was ominous: Within 15 years, thousands of miles of fiber optic cable—and hundreds of pieces of other key infrastructure—are likely to be swamped by the encroaching ocean. And while some of that infrastructure may be water resistant, little of it was designed to live fully underwater.

“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,” says study coauthor Paul Barford, a computer scientist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. “It was all was deployed 20ish years ago, when no one was thinking about the fact that sea levels might come up.” [Learn about how cities may be underwater soon].

“This will be a big problem,” says Rae Zimmerman, an expert on urban adaptation to climate change at NYU. Large parts of internet infrastructure soon “will be underwater, unless they’re moved back pretty quickly.”

The physical structure of the internet has been laid somewhat haphazardly over the past few decades as demand for connectivity has boomed, with lines often laid opportunistically alongside power lines, roads, or other big infrastructure. But the telecommunication companies that own those lines, power supplies, data transfer stations, and other components keep their exact location information private.

Scientists, planners, and businesses have long known that sea-level rise threatens physical infrastructure like roads, subways, sewage discharge networks, and power lines. But until now, no one had looked specifically at how higher water will affect the physical manifestation of the internet.

“Considering how interconnected everything is these days, protecting the internet is crucial,” says Mikhail Chester, the director of the Resilient Infrastructure Laboratory at the University of Arizona. Even minor hits, like when storms knock out internet connectivity for a few days, can affect things we take for granted, from traffic lights to flight patterns.

This new study “reinforces this idea that we need to be really cognizant of all these systems, because they’re going to take a long time to upgrade,” he says.

The researchers didn’t look at how short-term high-water events like storm surges from hurricanes would affect the infrastructure, but they warned planners to keep the short-term threats in mind when they look at solutions.

“We live in a world designed for an environment that no longer exists,” says Rich Sorkin, the co-founder of Jupiter Intelligence, a company that models climate-induced risk. Accepting the reality of what future will look like, he says, is key to planning for it—and studies like this, he says, highlight just how quickly we’ll all have to adapt.

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