Climate change could kill your internet in 15 years

Posted July 20, 2018

Researchers say more than 4,000 miles of fibre optic cables buried in densely populated coastal regions of the U.S. are likely to be affected by 2033. "Most of the damage that's going to be done in the next 100 years will be done sooner than later", senior study author and UW-Madison professor of computer science Paul Barford said in a news release. He added that the time period of 15 years had surprised them. Two major data sets used the in study The study, which is also the first to assess the risks posed to Internet infrastructure as it relates to rising sea levels used two data sets. It is predicted that over 1,100 traffic hubs would be surrounded by water and buried fiber optic conduit spread across more than 4,000 miles would be under water by the end of 2033. As per the report, the more vulnerable cities could be Seattle, Miami, and NY.

The US networks most at risk belong to AT&T, CenturyLink, and Inteliquent, with a particularly strong impact expected across New York, Miami, and Seattle metropolitan areas.

For the latest risk assessment survey, scientists at Wisconsin and OR compared the predictions of sea level rise models used by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration with the Internet Atlas, a geographical database detailing the physical internet. While the large transoceanic cables are completely waterproof, the buried smaller fibre optic cables are not and if they are submerged there could be far-reaching impacts not only in the coastal USA but potentially around the world.

Behind every tweet, meme, and bank transaction is a vast network of fiber optic cables and other infrastructure that makes up the "physical internet". It then overlaid this information with projections of sea level rises, caused by melting polar caps, from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Not only could rising sea levels cost millions of dollars in damage and displace hundreds of thousands of residents, this new study shows that it could potentially disrupt global communications.

Given how close many already are to sea level, the experts warn it won't take much for them to become submerged.

"Given the fact that most fibre conduit is underground, we expect the effects of sea level rise could be felt well before the 15-year horizon", says the study. They quickly discovered it won't be long until that critical internet infrastructure is totally submerged. Since sea levels are rising gradually, it's unlikely that a blackout would occur here on a similar scale-but it's good to keep in mind while planning for the future. That article also outlines a variety of climate change-related risks but does not mention sea level rise specifically. "We can probably buy a little time, but in the long run it's just not going to be effective", he said. The findings of the study, argues the Wisconsin computer scientist, serve notice to industry and government. "After Sandy, we started upgrading our network in earnest, and replacing our copper assets with fiber assets", says Verizon spokesperson Karen Schulz.