Research: Buried internet infrastructure at risk as sea levels rise

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

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

For the findings, the researchers compared the Internet Atlas, an extensive repository of maps of physical internet infrastructure, with sea level rise data done by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

According to the research, some 4,067 miles worth of fibre optic conduit will be under water and 1,101 nodes (e.g. points of presence and co-location centres) will be "surrounded by water in the next 15 years".

At a particular risk are fiber optic cables buried underground, which - unlike submarine cables - are not designed for prolonged periods of submersion. New York City and Miami are the other two most susceptible cities, but the impacts could ripple out and potentially disrupt global communications.

The study portrays critical communications infrastructure that could be submerged by rising seas in as soon as 15 years, said Paul Barford, a professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison in the US.

The dense network of cables that make up the Internet is likely to be inundated with salt water as sea levels rise, a new analysis suggests, putting thousands of miles of critical infrastructure along USA coastlines underwater in the next 15 years. "We don't have 50 years", said Barford.

Conduits at most risk are already close to sea level.

Moreover, much of the data that transits the internet tends to converge on a small number of fiber optic strands that lead to large population centers like NY, one of the more vulnerable cities identified in the study.

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

Behind every tweet, meme, and bank transaction is a vast network of fiber optic cables and other infrastructure that makes up the "physical internet".

Forget about Internet on Mars and Li-Fi, the Internet we rely on to run our hospitals, feed our cities, tweet celebrities, and watch animals do stupid things here on Earth could be at risk - and rising sea levels are to blame.

Durairajan presented the results of the study to the Applied Networking Research Workshop at IETF 102 this week in Montreal.

Durairajan says upgrading hardware is one good strategy, but that avoiding Internet disruptions from sea level rise also might require companies to rethink the way data flows through their networks. "But keeping the sea at bay is hard".

"When it was constructed 20-25 years prior, no thinking was given to environmental change", Barford said. Although the sea level rise projection used in the study is on the high end of what scientists predict, other climate scientists agree that that's the right approach to take. The full report also assessed these risks in terms of the amount and type of infrastructure that will be under water in different time intervals over the next 100 years.

"This is a wake-up call".

Combine that with the fact that the researchers only considered American infrastructure - and the same issue could be a threat in coastal or low-lying cities in countries across the world - and it's clear we're facing a major problem.

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