Is the Internet threatened by the rising seas?
In the collective imaginary the internet is in the cloud, when it is actually much more tangible than we want to think. It spreads across the globe using an underground network which grows according to the demand for internet access. It just so happens that this network is in danger. Indeed, the rise of sea levels due to global warming threatens this internet network located on the coast. The damage caused by this rising water could greatly affect our modern lifestyle.
A tangible and massive internet network
The internet is described by the Cambridge dictionary as “the broad system of connected computers around the world that allows people to share information and communicate with each other”. It has three main components: the end-user equipment, the data centres and the internet network.
This network is itself composed of several elements such as optic fibre cables, hardware servers, data transfer stations and power stations. These elements, all interconnected, weave a network to transmit information from one end of the world to another, and it is quite difficult to estimate its length. In 2014, there were 285 submarine communication cables or about 550,000 miles. It is difficult to gage the size of the terrestrial network, as it grows based on the demand, and the newly installed cables intermix with the old ones.
In the United States, it is estimated that most Internet infrastructure was built around the 1990s and 2000s. At that time, the development of the network followed the development of major American cities. Today, operators tend to install network extensions along with other infrastructures such as roads, railways or power lines. In some areas of the world and throughout history, cities and megacities have developed along the coastlines; portuary cities that were synonymous with wealth, opportunities, and businesses. These attractive and often densely populated cities are now facing a danger: the flooding of their internet network.
The rising seas gaining internet ground
Paul Barford, a computer scientist, and his assistant student, Ramakrishnan Durairajan, undertook a mapping of US internet infrastructure. As the infrastructures are private and belong to the operators, the locations are kept mostly secret in order to avoid any possible damage. In mapping the network, they observed that it was becoming denser in areas of high population. There are often coastal cities.
They presented their information to Carole Barford, climate scientist. and they became aware of the risk of flooding part of the network. They decided to superimpose the map with that of the rising sea level due to global warming by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Through their research, they estimated that in 2033, about 4,000 miles and 1,100 traffic hubs would be underwater in the US. For New York City, about 20% of its internet network will be underwater.
We should not underestimate the repercussions this flood would have on our current lifestyles. Many services work through the internet, such as traffic lights, medical monitoring or cash dispensers. In the past, some cities had suffered blackouts due to flooding. A recent example: in 2012 during Hurricane Sandy, 10% of the city of New York was deprived of electricity.
The problem is that the terrestrial network is designed to be water resistant, but not to work under water.
Unlike submarine cables, cables buried in the earth are protected mainly with plastic. There are not adequately protected in cases of floods or frost. And with part of the network being a few years old, it is possible that it is even more fragile than the new extensions.
It was during the Applied Networking Workshop in Montreal, July 16, 2018, that the three scientists presented their study concerning the territory of the USA. Carole Barford said “The 15-year predictions are really kind of locked in,” nobody can change what will happen. The main cities involved are New York, Miami and Seattle.
Saving the Internet … from itself?
“If we want to be able to function like we expect every day, we’re going to have to spend money and make allowances and plans to accommodate what’s coming” said Carole Barford.” “Most of the damage that’s going to be in the next 100 years will be done sooner than later … That surprised us. The expectation was 50 years to plan for it. We do not have 50 years, “added Paul Barford.
So, what are the solutions to avoid this submersion of the network?
The first would be to be able to locate all the infrastructures that compose / form the Internet network. Despite the risk of voluntary degradation, it is necessary to identify the infrastructure that will be underwater in a few years. The study predicts that about 4,000 miles and 1,100 traffic hubs will eventually be underwater. Their estimation is made according to the networks they knew about. This study must also extend to all continents and countries. As rising water levels are a global effect of climate change, many coastal cities are likely to be affected.
In order to limit the impact of rising water on the internet, operators can envisage different solutions. Strengthening the current network, moving it further inland, or ensuring that computer signals avoid submerged areas. However, these solutions are not perfect or permanent. Strengthening infrastructure will only work for so long. Avoiding submerged areas will impact the quality of the internet network and could cause latency. Moving existing infrastructures or creating new ones will require significant financial investments that could affect the end user.
Our internet use seems to be in danger. However, does it contribute to its own destruction? The internet is not as green as it seems. We power data centres, one of the main components of the internet, with unsustainable energy sources, creating carbon emissions. Forbes estimated that the carbon footprint of data centres alone is equivalent to that of the global aviation industry, or 2% of global emissions. The emissions of carbon dioxide, due to our increasing use of the internet, are one of the causes of the melting of the ice caps and rising water levels.
Wouldn’t it be ironic if our growing internet addiction was its own worst enemy?