Rising sea levels could leave internet cables underwater within 15 years, study says

By Adriana Navarro, AccuWeather staff writer
August 09, 2018, 10:32:27 AM EDT

A recent study conducted by researchers from the University of Oregon and the University of Wisconsin says that internet cables will be underwater in 15 years, and it's too late to stop it.

Coauthor Dr. Carol Barford said that she and the other researchers had expected to see some overlap in infrastructure and shorelines, but the timing surprised them.

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"The main thing that we didn't expect was that it would be so soon," Barford told AccuWeather.

In 2015, Barford's two coauthors, Paul Barford and Ramakrishnan Durairajan, contributed to a study that mapped out the infrastructure of the internet in the United States.

The results of the study when laying out the map from the previous study and comparing it to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predictions of the future shoreline shows that New York City, Miami and Seattle are at the highest risk.

Barford estimated that about one-fifth to one-fourth of the fibers that make up the internet in a city such as New York will be underwater on a normal day at high tide.

The study lists CenturyLink, Intelliquent and AT&T as companies that are at the most risk, and it summarizes the key takeaway as "developing mitigation strategies should begin soon."

While the fibers were designed to be water and weather resistant, they were not designed to be underwater, the study notes.

The paper does not list how being under water will affect internet connection, but Barford noted how it could hurt the physical components of it.

Barford said that the water molecules can seep into any micro-cracks of the tubes and into the glass fibers, causing signals to slow down or be lost.

"The movement of the signal is not as reliable when wet," Barford said.

Water can also damage the lines and nodes when it freezes in the tubes, thaws out and then repeats the cycle. The result is cracked or broken pieces.

Lastly, water sloshing around in the conduit can jostle or break fibers.

With the internet waterlogged, it won’t only impact coastal cities. Barford said that due to the network connections, there will be effects on traffic trans-nationally, through the Midwest.

It also has a chance to impact the Trans-Oceanic cables that run under the ocean floor and connect to a landing point and radiate out into the land-based network. It’s that meeting point that may be at risk.

Barford said that although things can change in the next century, the results are set for the next 15 years.

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A large wave crashes into a seawall in Winthrop, Mass., Saturday, March 3, 2018, a day after a nor'easter pounded the Atlantic coast. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

"As far as things happening in the next 10 to 15 years, they're pretty locked-in because there's a lot of inertia in the climate system," Barford said. "Even if we all stop driving cars and burning natural gas right now, it really wouldn't make a difference 15 years from now. So we're going to have flooded internet. The question is how to deal with it in the near term."

Barford summarized three different options that people are considering to approach the problem.

The first is the most expensive, which involves digging up the cables and nodes near flood areas and replacing them with waterproof counterparts.

The complications come in the time and money required to dig up those parts, most of which are along other types of infrastructure such as roads and railways. Another cost added to this option would be the waterproof cables.

Due to the expenses and logistics, Barford describes this option as unattractive.

Internet Line Map

Map of the physical conduits for networks in the continental U.S. according to the study "InterTubes: A Study of the US Long-haul Fiber-optic Infrastructure" by researchers from the University of Wisconsin and Colgate University.

The second option is to abandon the lines that are in danger of water damage and build new ones on higher ground.

"Some people have suggested that actually would be good with two fronts of infrastructure," Barford said. "Some of the old stuff could even be used if it wasn't flooded."

The third option is to reroute the internet traffic. Barford said she doesn't understand how people with the waterlogged internet would still get service with this option, but that in general, "a lot of the need could be met by rerouting traffic through infrastructure that is on high ground."

When overlaying the infrastructure maps with the NOAA sea level rise predictions, Barford said they used the “high” scenario from the site because the association recommended using this setting when evaluating expensive or long-term infrastructure.

“Anytime you’re risking an investment and something really big that would be really bad if you lost it, then you have to consider the more serious end of things,” Barford said.

The second reason for using this model is that it takes the effects of greenhouse gases on the climate change into consideration for its prediction.

“It’s based on a business-as-usual greenhouse gas emission scenario, which the way we’re going seems a pretty likely thing for the next few years. We’re kind of doing business as usual, if not worse,” Barford said.

Since the high prediction that they employed was published in 2012, NOAA has published an “extreme” scenario, now the highest tier and more devastating prediction.

“It all seems very grim, but it definitely substantiates the idea that it’s worth looking at the more serious scenarios, and that there’s really no use to be optimistic in the near term.”

Barford said the inevitable change comes from the inertia in the climate system, the effects of past greenhouse gas emissions carrying over and catching up.

"There's a lot of heating and sea level rise that is just going to happen," Barford said. "And then hopefully we can get our act together and make the consequences less severe for people living later on in the century."

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