Could climate change kill the internet?

Study suggests buried Internet infrastructure at risk as sea levels rise

The study concludes in a "worst case scenario" more than 4,000 miles of critical infrastructure along USA coastlines would be underwater by 2033. And this could come to pass within the next 15 years, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of OR, reports National Public Radio.

"Hopefully, our findings will alert people that we don't have 100 years to solve this", said Paul Barford, University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of computer science and lead author of the paper.

"The results surprised us. We don't have 50 years", he said.

"The bottom line is that most internet infrastructure that has been deployed did not have to consider climate change effects", Barford told Motherboard.

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.

Barford carried out the study along with his former student, Ramakrishnan Durairajan, who is now at the University of OR, and Carol Barford, who directs University of Wisconsin-Madison's Centre for Sustainability and the Global Environment. It then overlaid this information with projections of sea level rises, caused by melting polar caps, from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Rising sea levels will make the flooding from such storms worse, as NPR has reported. The first is the fibre conduit and data centres data from the Internet Atlas, which has maps of 1,500 networks from all over the world. It was developed through a great amount of painstaking work by University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers and their collaborators.


Buried fibre optic wiring is created to be water-resistant but unlike the marine cables that carry data from continent to continent under the ocean, they are not waterproof and can be damaged.

A complex network of fiber optic cables, the physical internet, carries data to and from your computer in the blink of an eye. It is predicted that over 1,100 traffic hubs would be surrounded by water and buried fiber optic conduit spread across more than 4,000 miles would be under water by the end of 2033.

The scientists believe New York, Miami and Seattle would be the cities most affected but suggest the damage would not be confined to those areas and would have global effects on the world wide web. In a study published Monday, scientists examined the vulnerability of communication infrastructure to human-driven sea level rise.

The situation is particularly dire for internet infrastructure in New York City, Miami and Seattle.

She says Verizon has also elevated buildings and power stations in areas that flood. We have to start the mitigation strategies and planning right now.

"The first instinct will be to harden the infrastructure", Barford says.

"When you're thinking about the risk of expensive assets or infrastructure that's going to last a long time, you really want to think about these high or fast scenarios", explained Amy Snover, the director of the climate impacts group at the University of Washington. This study should be seen as a "wake-up call".

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