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NEWS
Sea Levels Rise Threatens Internet Infrastructure
July 27, 2018

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 (UW-Madison) and the University of Oregon.


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, UW-Madison.

The study, presented recently 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.

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 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 Prof. Barford, potentially disrupting global communications.

According to information, 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 recently 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.

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 Prof. 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.


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