How Rising Seas Could Threaten the Internet

Seawater inundation (blue) projected for New York City by 2033 and its effect on internet infrastructure (dark green).

Seawater inundation (blue) projected for New York City by 2033 and its effect on internet infrastructure (dark green). Durairajan et al. 2018

Climate change poses a serious threat to the United States’ internet infrastructure, with more than 4,000 miles of fiber optic cable expected to be under water within 15 years from just 1 foot of sea level rise, according to a new analysis by scientists at the University of Oregon and University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“Most of the damage that’s going to be done in the next 100 years will be done sooner than later,” Paul Barford, a computer scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and co-author of the study, said in a statement. “That surprised us. The expectation was that we’d have 50 years to plan for it. We don’t have 50 years.”

Over the last 20 years, to meet customers’ surging demand for greater internet connectivity, telecommunication companies have laid out the physical structure of the internet — fiber optic cables, data transfer stations, nodes (communication endpoints) — rather haphazardly, buried alongside existing power lines, roads, and railways and much of it clustered along shorelines.

“When it was built 20–25 years ago, no thought was given to climate change,” Barford said. Most fiber optic cable in use today is water-resistant, but not waterproof, he said.

The scientists combined data from the Internet Atlas, a global map of the internet’s physical structure, and sea level rise projections from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which estimates an average 1 foot of rise within the next 15 years and 6 feet by the end of the century. They found that significant damage will be done in the next decade-and-a-half, with 4,067 miles of fiber conduit and 1,101 nodes in the U.S. expected to be underwater by 2033. New York, Miami, and Seattle will be the most effected.

The scientists presented their peer-reviewed findings this week at the Applied Networking Research Workshop in Montreal.

“This is a wake-up call,” Barford said. “We need to be thinking about how to address this issue.”