Study suggests buried Internet infrastructure at risk as sea levels rise

July 16, 2018 by Terry Devitt, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Seawater inundation projected for New York City by 2033 and its effect on internet infrastructure. Undersea cables, long haul fiber cables and metro fiber cables are shown in the red/green/black lines respectively. Anything in the blue shaded areas is estimated to be underwater in 15 years due to climate change induced sea level rise as projected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Credit: Paul Barford/University of Wisconsin-Madison

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 by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Oregon.

The study, presented here today (July 16, 2018) at a meeting of internet network researchers, portrays critical communications infrastructure that could be submerged by rising seas in as soon as 15 years, according to the study's senior author, Paul Barford, a UW-Madison professor of computer science.

"Most of the damage that's going to be done in the next 100 years will be done sooner than later," says Barford, an authority on the "physical internet"—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. "That surprised us. The expectation was that we'd have 50 years to plan for it. We don't have 50 years."

The study, 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, 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 fiber optic conduit 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 the effects would not be confined to those areas and would ripple across the internet, says Barford, potentially disrupting global communications.

The peer-reviewed 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). The study, which only evaluated risk to infrastructure in the United States, was shared today with academic and industry researchers at the Applied Networking Research Workshop, a meeting of the Association for Computing Machinery, the Internet Society and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

Much of this infrastructure is buried and follows long-established rights of way, typically paralleling highways and coastlines, says Barford. "When it was built 20-25 years ago, no thought was given to climate change."

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. Hints of the problems to come, says Barford, can be seen in the catastrophic storm surges and flooding that accompanied hurricanes Sandy and Katrina.

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, says Barford, is coupled to the large population centers 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. "The landing points are all going to be underwater in a short period of time," he notes.

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 New York, one of the more vulnerable cities identified in the study.

The impact of mitigation such as sea walls, according to the study, are difficult to predict. "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."

In addition to looking at the risk to local and long-haul infrastructure in the nation's coastal areas, the study examined the risk to the buried assets of individual service providers. It found the networks of CenturyLink, Inteliquent and AT&T to be at highest risk.

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."

Explore further: Map brings needed attention to underpinning of Internet

Related Stories

Map brings needed attention to underpinning of Internet

September 17, 2015

Four researchers have completed their study, "InterTubes: A Study of the US Long-haul Fiber-optic Infrastructure." The authors of this paper are drawing attention to the physical side of the wired Internet and its future: ...

Backup options for Internet lines can be costly, complicated

March 27, 2015

Hunter Newby describes himself as a real estate entrepreneur, even if he's not marketing houses or land. Instead, he's selling space on a new fiber-optic transmission line to Internet providers, telecommunications companies ...

Recommended for you

EPA adviser is promoting harmful ideas, scientists say

March 22, 2019

The Trump administration's reliance on industry-funded environmental specialists is again coming under fire, this time by researchers who say that Louis Anthony "Tony" Cox Jr., who leads a key Environmental Protection Agency ...

The taming of the light screw

March 22, 2019

DESY and MPSD scientists have created high-order harmonics from solids with controlled polarization states, taking advantage of both crystal symmetry and attosecond electronic dynamics. The newly demonstrated technique might ...

Male fish can thank genes for colourful looks

March 22, 2019

Striking traits seen only in males of some species – such as colourful peacock feathers or butterfly wings – are partly explained by gene behaviour, research suggests.

Coffee-based colloids for direct solar absorption

March 22, 2019

Solar energy is one of the most promising resources to help reduce fossil fuel consumption and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions to power a sustainable future. Devices presently in use to convert solar energy into thermal ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

3 / 5 (2) Jul 16, 2018
by the time this happens (10 years or more anyway) all this crap will be so much obsolescence.

if you're really worried

plant some trees, tell your gurus to stop flying charter jets and paint all artificial sky facing surfaces white.
2.7 / 5 (7) Jul 17, 2018
Are there real scientists who even believe this wolf-crying?
5 / 5 (2) Jul 17, 2018
Is there anything controversial about this article? The elevations of the cables/hardware are a matter of record, so there doesn't seem much to dispute there. Sea level rise has been at the upper end of projections for years. That suggests that their results are probably conservative. Especially as they're only looking 15 years in the future. They may be off by a couple years, but "Wolf-crying" seems dishonest.
Thorium Boy
1 / 5 (1) Jul 17, 2018
"I tour the world in a private jet lectuing on the evils of fossil fuel and I just bought a mansion on the seaside all the while preaching about rising oceans..."
-Al Gore
1 / 5 (3) Jul 17, 2018
...but the Earth is cooling, and sea levels are not rising...

...(inconvenient truth)...
1 / 5 (1) Jul 17, 2018
Noah / Noaa says the flood is coming . And we will burn for our sins ,,,,,
5 / 5 (1) Jul 17, 2018
Fuck you Shootist, fuck you Bart_A, fuck you Thorium Boy, fuck you szore88, fuck you snoosbaum.

There, now I've given each of you all the arguments you deserve. Come back if you grow up enough to talk like adults.
1 / 5 (1) Jul 18, 2018
All you fake conservatives and fraudulent libertarians and phony capitalists should be applauding and cheering these doom and gloom projections.

As the perfect opportunity to expand your criminal operations defrauding the public treasury. Selling your quack cures and shoddy merchandise to "fix" "prevent" "disrupt" the ongoing climate crisis.

You preen and swagger about, boasting of your business acumen while leaving big piles of money untouched on the table. What a bunch of losers!

Allowing/ignoring the liberal _ environmentalist _ futurists _ productive members of society eating your lunch. While snickering at you.

Civic Virtue as a profit center.

You alltright fairytails are so caught up in your politically correct, ideologically pure fantasies of adequacy, that you are blind to the moneymaking possibilities of embracing the struggle to save the Earth's biosphere!

Conservatism is not a political slogan but a progressive action. Just ask Teddy Roosevelt.
not rated yet Jul 18, 2018
ll you fake conservatives and fraudulent libertarians and phony capitalists should be applauding and cheering these doom and gloom projections.

As the perfect opportunity to expand your criminal operations defrauding the public treasury. Selling your quack cures and shoddy merchandise to "fix" "prevent" "disrupt" the ongoing climate crisis.

You preen and swagger about, boasting of your business acumen while leaving big piles of money untouched on the table. What a bunch of losers!
you freak
1 / 5 (1) Jul 18, 2018
deer otto, look closer at the utube video of flying saucer that you are gaping slackjaw at. And you can see the "Marie Calender's Pies" impression inside it.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.