Published: Fri, July 20, 2018
IT | By Lester Massey

Rising sea levels could disrupt global communications

Rising sea levels could disrupt global communications

Fiber optic cables buried in largely inhabited coastal regions of the US across thousands of miles could soon be flooded, said the scientist.

In a separate statement, Paul Barford said: "Most of the damage that's going to be done in the next 100 years will be done sooner than later".

If thousands of miles of cable were flooded due to sea level rise, it could potentially impact Internet reliability for millions of Americans in major cities. We believe that these results highlight a real and present threat to the management and operations of communications systems and that steps should be taken soon to develop plans to address this threat. "We don't have 50 years", he said.

The study is the first assessment of risk of climate change to the internet.

According to the study, in 15 years some 1,186 miles (1,908km) of long-haul fiber and 2,429 miles (3,909km) of metro fiber will be underwater, while 1,101 termination points will be surrounded by the sea.

The most susceptible networks are those of CenturyLink, Inteliquent, and AT&T, while the USA cities at highest risk of losing internet access are New York, Miami, and Seattle.

Researchers used data from the Internet Atlas - which maps the internet's infrastructure around the world - along with sea level projections from the NOAA.

Most of this infrastructure was constructed around 25 years ago along trails running parallel with highways and coastlines, with no thought given to how geography would alter as the climate changed.

"We will continue to take all potential risks, such as the effects of climate change, into consideration in our ongoing planning and deployment of existing and new facilities", Mark Molzen, a spokesman from CenturyLink, said by email.

Moreover, much of the data that transits the internet tends to converge on a small number of fiber optic strands that lead to large population centers like NY, one of the more vulnerable cities identified in the study. While the massive deep sea cables that carry data under the Atlantic and Pacific oceans are created to be permanently underwater, other infrastructure such as copper wiring and power stations are not.

Conduits at most risk are already close to sea level. "The landing points are all going to be underwater in a short period of time", he notes.

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of OR have taken a look at the risk factors of climate change and how it may impact the internet and their findings are unsettling. "In any case, keeping the ocean under control is hard". Among service providers in the United States, the ones at greatest risk are Centurylink, Inteliquent and AT&T.

The experts say it's unclear how much mitigation efforts, such as sea walls, will help the problem.

"The first instinct will be to harden the infrastructure", Barford says. This study should be seen as a "wake-up call".

"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", Durairajan says.

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