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Climate change threatens undersea internet cables, damage may happen sooner than expected — study

(Image from Pixabay)

The internet has exploded into a mammoth universe for humanity, and technology organizations scrambled to become part of it. In the process, telecommunications companies expanded their infrastructure to serve more customers globally.

The study titled “Lights Out: Climate Change Risk to Internet Infrastructure” found that the rising sea levels caused by climate change can affect almost 6,500 kilometers (or around 4,000 miles) of undersea fiber optic cables in a number of US coastal regions.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) discussed a talk given by Ramakrishnan Durairajan, assistant professor in the computer and information science department, at the University of Oregon, to internet researchers at the “Applied Networking Workshop in Montreal” on July 16. The study is the first risk assessment of climate change to the internet, according to WEF and the locations covered were limited to the United States only.

Durairajan said the damage they were expecting could happen sooner than expected, which means that the world is relatively unprepared on how to handle a potential connectivity disruption that may happen in the next 15 years.

“Most of the damage that’s going to be done in the next 100 years will be done sooner than later,” he said.

WEF said “the study combined data from the Internet Atlas, a comprehensive global map of the internet’s physical structure, and projections of sea level incursion from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.”

“We don’t have 50 years”

Paul Barford, a computer scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who worked with Durairajan in the study, said they were surprised with the findings because they were expecting the damage to happen in 50 years.

“We don’t have 50 years,” Barford said.

Durairajan also urges companies to expedite the execution of strategies to address the situation “sooner than later.”

Durairajan also noted that the world didn’t see the need to have a stable global rid when the internet was experiencing a boom. While people are so focused on the environmental effects of climate change, technology has been conspicuously left out in the discussion and vice versa.

The WEF also noted that “more than 1,100 internet traffic hubs will be surrounded by water” by 2033, based on the study. The study also mentions New York City and Miami as the two locations that might severely feel the damage.

“Our analysis is conservative in that we only looked at the static dataset of sea level rise and then overlapped that over the infrastructure to get an idea of risk,” WEF quoted Durairajan as saying. “Sea level rise can have other factors — a tsunami, a hurricane, coastal subduction zone earthquakes — all of which could provide additional stresses that could be catastrophic to infrastructure already at risk.”

Keep fiber optics safe

Durairajan also saw the irony that technology wouldn’t be able to keep the fiber optics safe and may even “face the greatest risk.” He noted that while the fiber optic cables are water resistant, they are not waterproof “unlike the marine cables that ferry data under the ocean.”

“The first instinct will be to harden the infrastructure,” WEF quoted Barford. “But keeping the sea at bay is hard. We can probably buy a little time, but in the long run, it’s just not going to be effective.”

The rising sea levels will expose the fiber optic cables to seawater, according to the study, and should there be any natural disaster, people and companies should expect service disruptions.

Durairajan suggests strengthening coastal infrastructure to prevent any effect on inland stations.

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