Researchers Warn Buried Internet Cables at Risk as Sea Levels Rise

Alonzo Simpson
July 20, 2018

In a study published Monday, scientists examined the vulnerability of communication infrastructure to human-driven sea level rise.

What's more, the researchers led by Paul Barford, a professor of computer science and physical internet expert, found that thousands of miles of cables will likely be submerged much sooner than previously thought.

A complex network of fiber optic cables, the physical internet, carries data to and from your computer in the blink of an eye.

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

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

Paul Barford and his colleagues have spent the past seven years combing public records.

As a recent peer-reviewed study highlights, this infrastructure (the so-called "physical Internet") is not now built to withstand significant changes in sea level.

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Ocean levels will rise inexorably because heat-trapping industrial gases already emitted will linger in the atmosphere, melting more ice, it 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.

"That surprised us. The expectation was that we'd have 50 years to plan for it".

Communication infrastructure naturally follows people. When those submarine cables reach coastal cities, though, the physical cabling switches from water-proof wires to merely water-resistant ones. The researchers specifically named New York, Miami, and Seattle as high risk. The researchers note the potential for "waterfall effects", where an outage in Seattle or NY would affect other parts of the country. When asked to comment, CenturyLink said in a written statement that their networks were designed with redundancy to mitigate the effects of outages. Neither a vision of a global grid nor planning for climate change was considered during the technology explosion. The storm surges from such events would have an even greater impact on the infrastructure. "We need to be thinking about how to address this issue". "It helps you understand where to put your effort, where to put your investment, and where to look for deficiencies". The most at-risk stretches of cable were unsurprisingly those already close to sea level, meaning the slight increases predicted for the next few years will be enough to cover them.

However the study admits that it is now very hard to project the impact of countermeasures, such as sea walls, but "our results suggest the urgency of developing mitigation strategies and alternative infrastructure deployments". We can probably buy a little time, but in the long run it's just not going to be effective'. Fiber optic cables laid 20-25 years ago, when it was not yet clear what the implications of climate change. "It's one of lots of different coastally located infrastructure that are potentially vulnerable".

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