Rising seas could significantly affect the global internet infrastructure, say scientist who found that thousands of miles of buried fibre optic cables in densely populated coastal regions of the US may soon be flooded.
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.
“Most of the damage that’s going to be done in the next 100 years will be done sooner than later. The expectation was that we’d have 50 years to plan for it. We don’t have 50 years,” said Barford.
The study is the first assessment of risk of climate change to the internet. It suggests that by the year 2033 more than 4,000 miles of buried fibre optic conduit will be underwater and more than 1,100 traffic hubs will be surrounded by water.
The most susceptible US cities, according to the report, are New York, Miami and Seattle, but the effects would not be confined to those areas and would ripple across the internet, potentially disrupting global communications, said Barford.
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 (NOAA).
Much of this infrastructure is buried and follows long-established rights of way, typically paralleling highways and coastlines, said Barford.
“When it was built 20-25 years ago, no thought was given to climate change,” he said.
Many of the conduits at risk are already close to sea level and only a slight rise in ocean levels due to melting polar ice and thermal expansion as climate warms will be needed to expose buried fiber optic cables to sea water.
Buried fiber optic cables are designed to be water-resistant, but unlike the marine cables that ferry data from continent to continent under the ocean, they are not waterproof.
Risk to the physical internet is coupled to the large population centres that exist on the coasts, which also tend to be the same places where the transoceanic marine cables that underpin global communication networks come ashore.