Rising sea level destroys digital infrastructure

A study of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Oregon of July 2018 reveals that the rising sea level is unexpectedly dangerous for the fiberglass cables buried on the US coasts (editor’s note: The study only evaluated the risk to the infrastructure in the United States). In less than 100 years important centers will be under the ocean and the worldwide flow of 1 and 0 that enable our daily communication will sink.

 Flooded Urban Infrastructure (c) Shutterstock

Flooded Urban Infrastructure (c) Shutterstock

There are thousands of miles of buried fiber optic cable on the coastline which will already be flooded by the rising sea level in about 15 years if adaptation does not happen now. According to the study’s senior author and professor of computer science, Paul Barford, the communications infrastructure must get proofed very fast: “Most of the damage that’s going to be done in the next 100 years will be done sooner than later,” he says. “When it was built 20–25 years ago, no thought was given to climate change.”

Shocking outcomings: We don’t have enough time

The critical infrastructure are the buried fiber optic cables, data centers, traffic exchanges, and termination points of the huge global information network, which are typically built parall to highways and coastlines. “That surprised us. The expectation was that we’d have 50 years to plan for it. We don’t have 50 years.”

The risk of climate change to internet centers suggests that by the year 2033 more than 4,000 miles of buried fiber optic conduit might be under water and more than 1,100 traffic hubs will be surrounded by water, which will destroy the sensitive infrastructure. Especially in coast-cities like New York, Miami, and Seattle these effects can be seen. But the damages can exist worldwide.

Buried cables are water-repellent but not waterproof for the long-term

Due to melting polar ice and thermal expansion as climate warms the conduits will get flooded. It can already be seen in the catastrophic storm surges and flooding accompanying hurricanes Sandy and Katrina.

Of course, buried fiber glass cables on the coast are resistant against wetness but not like the marine cables that ferry data from continent to continent under the ocean. Much of the data that transits the internet tends to converge on a small number of fiber optic strands lead to large population centers like New York. The study also doubts about the effectiveness of possible countermeasures.

The study was run by researchers who direct the UW-Madison’s Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment. It combines data from the Internet Atlas, and projections of sea level incursion from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Barford sums up: “This is a wake-up call. We need to be thinking about how to address this issue.”