Sea level rise threatens internet infrastructure, new research shows

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

Buried internet cables in densely populated coastal regions across the USA are now being threatened by rising sea levels, a new study has found.

"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. She knew that sea levels have been rising steadily for the past hundred years as Earth's climate has warmed, and that's already affecting many coastal areas.

"The results surprised us. We don't have 50 years", said Barford.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), sea levels are slated to rise by 0.5 to 1.4 metres by the end of the century. It found that more than 4,000 miles of the conduit that carries the internet to much of the United States could be exposed to sea water by 2033. (Credit: Paul Barford/UW-Madison) Seawater affects projected by NOAA for 2033 for Seattle on internet infrastructure. Undersea cables, long haul fiber cables and metro fiber cables are shown in the red/green/black lines respectively.

Conducting the study, the researchers relied on data from an online Atlas that shows the structure of networks worldwide, as well as projections of sea-level rise from the National oceanic and atmospheric administration.

Barford noted that "no thought was given to climate change" some 20 to 25 years ago when the infrastructure was built along long-established rights of way, typically along highways and coastlines. 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.

For a more dystopian prediction, Barford points to the communications outages that followed Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy.

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While fiber optic cables are water-resistant, they are not waterproof like marine cables.

Behind every tweet, meme, and bank transaction is a vast network of fiber optic cables and other infrastructure that makes up the "physical internet". Significant bits of the physical web are spread crosswise over important waterfront urban areas, including New York, Miami, and Seattle - all urban areas undermined by rising oceans.

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".

"The first instinct will be to harden the infrastructure", said Barford.

Barford said building sea walls to keep out storm surge and rising seas may "buy some time", but in the long run, "it's just not going to be effective".

Researchers added: "Future deployments of Internet infrastructure (including colocation and data centers, conduits, cell towers, etc.) will need to consider the impact of of climate change".

Additionally, "in 2030, about 771 PoPs, 235 data centers, 53 landing stations, 42 IXPs will be affected by a one-foot rise in sea level".

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