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article imageBuried coastal Internet infrastructure at risk from rising seas

By Karen Graham     Jul 17, 2018 in Science
Thousands of miles of buried fiber optic cable in densely populated coastal regions of the United States may soon be inundated by rising seas, according to a new study.
From numerous studies on sea level rise, we know the coming risks to homes, businesses and other structures along coastal areas affected by rising seas, but what about critical Internet infrastructure?
There are thousands of miles of buried fiber optic cable and connectors in densely populated coastal regions that will be inundated by saltwater. And this could come to pass within the next 15 years, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Oregon, reports National Public Radio.
"Most of the damage that's going to be done in the next 100 years will be done sooner than later," senior study author and UW–Madison professor of computer science Paul Barford said in a news release. "That surprised us. The expectation was that we'd have 50 years to plan for it. We don't have 50 years."
Seawater inundation projected for New York City by 2033 and its effect on internet infrastructure. A...
Seawater inundation projected for New York City by 2033 and its effect on internet infrastructure. Anything in the blue shaded areas is estimated to be underwater in 15 years.
Paul Barford
The study was presented at the Applied Networking Research Workshop in Montreal, Canada on July 16, 2018. The study was conducted with Barford’s former student Ramakrishnan Durairajan, now of the University of Oregon, and Carol Barford, who directs UW–Madison’s Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment.
Two major data sets used the in study
The study, which is also the first to assess the risks posed to Internet infrastructure as it relates to rising sea levels used two data sets. One is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) sea level rise projections, a compilation of three sea level rise scenarios.
In June, Digital Journal reported on a study conducted by the Union of Concerned Scientists that looked at the economic loss associated with rising sea levels and coastal flooding.
The group also used the NOAA sea level rise data sets along with property data from the online real estate company Zillow to reach their conclusion that as many as 311,000 coastal homes are at risk of chronic flooding within the next 30 years.
The other data set, the Internet Atlas, is a repository of the physical Internet and includes geocoded maps of over 1,500 networks from around the world. It was developed through a great amount of painstaking work by University of Wisconsin–Madison researchers and their collaborators.
Professor of Computer Sciences Paul Barford, Ph.D. candidate Ramakrishnan (Ram) Durairajan, and colleagues developed Internet Atlas in 2017.
A team of scientists developed Internet Atlas  the first detailed map of the internet’s structure ...
A team of scientists developed Internet Atlas, the first detailed map of the internet’s structure worldwide. The lines represent crucial pieces of the physical infrastructure of the internet that billions of people rely on.
University of Wisconsin
Internet Infrastructure at risk
The massive deep-sea cables that carry data under the Atlantic and Pacific oceans are designed to be permanently underwater, however, this is not the case with the underground cables buried along roadways and through tunnels.
The buried fiber optic cables, data centers, traffic exchanges and termination points that are the nerve centers, arteries, and hubs of the vast global information network are the physical Internet.
And according to the research paper, by the year 2033, more than 4,000 miles of buried fiber optic conduit in the United States will be underwater and more than 1,100 traffic hubs will be surrounded by water. The most susceptible U.S. cities, according to the report, are New York, Miami, and Seattle, but that doesn't mean other areas won't be affected.
The damage will ripple across the internet, says Barford, potentially disrupting global communications. Barford also points out that 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 New York, or other large coastal cities.
Coastal flooding is also an issue as the ocean levels rise.
Coastal flooding is also an issue as the ocean levels rise.
Province of BC
We automatically think seawalls will help to mitigate the damage. "The first instinct will be to harden the infrastructure," Barford says. "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 findings of the study, argues the Wisconsin computer scientist, serve notice to industry and government. "This is a wake-up call. We need to be thinking about how to address this issue."
This very interesting and thought-provoking study, Lights Out: Climate Change Risk to Internet Infrastructure. was presented at the Applied Networking Research Workshop, a meeting of the Association for Computing Machinery, the Internet Society and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineer in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
More about Internet infrastructure, Sea level rise, Climate change, Risks, critical infrastructure
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