When the Internet goes down, life, as the modern American knows it, comes to a standstill. Gone are the cute kitten pictures and the Facebook status updates – but also gone are the signals telling stoplights to switch from green to red, and doctors’ access to online patient records.
A large network of physical infrastructure underlies the internet connections that affect almost every aspect of modern life. Fine fiber optic cables, massive data transfer stations and power plants create a patchwork of literal nuts and bolts that facilitate the flow of zeros and ones.
Now, research shows that quite a bit of that infrastructure is right in the way of rising seas. (See what the planet would look like if all the ice melted.)
Researchers mapped the threads and knots in the Internet infrastructure in USA and put it on top of maps showing future sea level rise. What they found was ominous: Within 15 years, thousands of miles of fiber-optic cable – and hundreds of pieces of other key infrastructure – are likely to be flooded by the penetrating ocean. And while some of that infrastructure may be water-repellent, some of it was designed to live fully underwater.
“So much of the infrastructure that has been installed is right next to the coast, so it does not take much more than a few inches or a foot of sea level rise before it is underwater,” says study co-author Paul Barford, a computer scientist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. “It was all deployed 20 years ago when no one thought sea levels could rise.” [Learn about how cities may be underwater soon].
“This will be a big problem,” said Rae Zimmerman, an expert in urban adaptation to climate change at NYU. Large parts of the Internet infrastructure “will soon be under water unless they are moved back fairly quickly.”
The physical structure of the Internet has been laid somewhat haphazardly over the last few decades, as the demand for connectivity has boomed, with lines often laid opportunistically along power lines, roads or other major infrastructure. However, the telecommunications companies that own these lines, power supplies, data transfer stations and other components keep their exact location information private.
Barford, one of the study’s authors, spent the last few years carefully scraping the web for the remnants of publicly available information he could find about the location of these components and mapping his findings. Many of these important pieces, he and his graduate student Ramakrishnan Durairajan found, were really close to the shores.
When Carol Barford, a climate scientist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, saw the maps, she saw something else: risk. She knew that sea levels have been rising steadily for the last hundred years as the earth’s climate has warmed, affecting many coastal areas already.
When the three researchers put the map of the Internet’s physical infrastructure on top of prediction maps for sea level rise, they saw a striking overlap: Huge pieces of important infrastructure were in the places that are likely to be underwater within 15 years.
Cities like New York, Miami and Seattle are likely to see up to 12 inches of extra water by 2030 – well within the time frame of a home mortgage or the planning horizon for major public infrastructure projects. A foot of extra water flowing through some of these cities, the researchers say, would put about 20 percent of the country’s most important Internet infrastructure under water.
“The 15-year-old predictions are really a bit locked in,” says Carol Barford. There is so much inertia in the climate system that there is nothing humans can do to prevent the oceans from rising within that time frame.
It’s all connected
Scientists, planners and companies have long known that rising sea levels threaten physical infrastructure such as roads, subways, sewage discharges and power lines. But until now, no one had looked specifically at how higher water will affect the physical manifestation of the Internet.
“Given how interconnected everything is these days, protecting the Internet is crucial,” said Mikhail Chester, director of the Resilient Infrastructure Laboratory at the University of Arizona. Even minor hits, like when storms knock out the internet connection for a few days, can affect things we take for granted, from traffic lights to flight patterns.
This new study “reinforces this idea that we need to be really mindful of all these systems because they’re going to take a long time to upgrade,” he says.
The researchers did not look at how short-term flood events such as hurricanes from hurricanes would affect infrastructure, but they warned planners to keep the short-term threats in mind when looking at solutions.
“We live in a world designed for an environment that no longer exists,” said Rich Sorkin, co-founder of Jupiter Intelligence, a company that models climate-induced risks. Accepting the reality of what the future will look like, he says, is the key to planning for it – and studies like this, he says, highlight how quickly we will all have to adapt.
Editor’s note: this article has been updated from 15:40 EDT.