The impact of anthropogenic global warming has already started to show across numerous fronts. From rapid changes in climate that are causing floods, droughts, and forest fires to ocean acidification that’s killing our coral reefs – the effects are farfetched and prolonged. However, projections state that the worse is yet to come, as efforts to mitigate the amount of greenhouse gases has not caught up with our usage of fossil fuels and deforestation. A recent study has presented a new concern, which claims that critical communication infrastructure is set to be submerged by the rising sea-levels in as soon as 15 years.
The communication domain which will suffer the most is none other than the Internet, an important medium of modern day society. It uses marine cables, delicate fiber optic cables, and massive data and power transfer stations to create a vast and intricate web of physical infrastructure. The demand for connectivity in the past decade has resulted in the haphazard placement of such vital Internet infrastructure – often alongside power lines, roads or big buildings. But more importantly, a majority of these infrastructures are located in cities alongside oceans – acting as a hub that facilitates internet connection to the rest of the country. It’s these cities, which are projected to be hit first by the rising sea-level – a direct effect of global warming.
The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Oregon, is the first of its kind to assess the risk posed by global warming on the Internet. The scientists spatially mapped the location of internet infrastructure in the U.S., gathering the data from public domains as the majority of telecommunication companies keep their exact location private. The map was, then, layered with the projections of sea-level rise in the future. Imposing two maps over each other allowed the researchers to identify the impact of sea-level rise on these infrastructures.
The results indicate dire consequences for the future of the Internet in the U.S. – projecting that within 15 years, 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. Fiber optic cables, unlike marine cables that carry data from one continent to another, are designed to be water-resistant, not waterproof. Most of these cables are placed paralleling highways and coastlines, as the concern of global warming induced sea-level rise weren’t a factor to consider during their placement years ago. The report also mentions New York, Miami, and Seattle as the three cities that would be most susceptible to the effects of global warming – as a large number of fiber optic cables and traffic hubs lies in them. These cities are likely to see up to 12 inches of extra water by 2030, which the researchers say, would put around 20% of the nation’s key internet infrastructure underwater.
While the construction of sea walls could temporarily provide a solution to the problem, it wouldn’t be sufficient in the long run. Keeping the sea at bay is extremely difficult, and sea walls wouldn’t be effective in the long run. The study’s lead author, Ramakrishnan Durairajan, says, “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.” He adds, “Sea level rise can have other factors — a tsunami, a hurricane, coastal subduction zone earthquakes — all of which could provide additional stresses that could be catastrophic to infrastructure already at risk.”